The Terralon Diary, Part 2: Crow Selection Phase

Time to check in again on my experience working through The Gates of Terralon, a linear RPG experience presented in the form of a desk calendar. Last time, I kicked off the early-year tutorial, and this time I’m going to cover the rest of it.

On the 8th/9th January (remember, Saturday and Sunday are on the same page), there’s not much to do but roll a Constitution check to not lose my lunch going through the dimensional gate, which I succeed. Fine, cool, one step closer to making a horrible hubristic mistake by trying to destroy the demon realm with a big magical bomb.

10th January has me giving a pep talk to my troops, which I succeed at – meaning I’ll get a bonus on my rolls in the combat that happens on 11th January. That proves handy, because it’s a tough fight against no less than 4 demons, but I end up slaying two of them and taking damage from the other two (prompting me to quaff my healing potion). Then a series of unlucky rolls meant I got battered by the flying boss demon on 12th January.

13th January offered an honest to goodness dungeon crawl: the sheet for the day shows a little map with each room numbered, and I have to pick my route through the dungeon and resolve the rooms I go through. It ends up being zero-sum: I successfully find a healing potion in a demonic sacrificial altar, which I instantly quaffed (erm, seems a bit dodgy to be drinking potions sourced from there but OK, I won’t pass up 4HP) and then I failed to defend myself against a monster and lost the hit points the potion gave me.

14th January is a couple of skill checks: the first determines whether or not I get a small penalty to the second one, the second one determines whether I lose 2HP to an ambush from a demonic guardian or not. This feels kind of low-stakes to me, so let’s move on to 15th/16th January where I fight the demonic gate guardian.

The demonic gate guardian is a big titty spider lady. She looks rather feral and I think she’s meant to be topless; the illustration of her here doesn’t show nipple, but I wouldn’t confidently say it’s 100% unambigiously safe for work either, which feels like a weird choice for a game presented in a desk calendar which could conceivably be used in someone’s workplace. Anyway, I evade her bite but still take a bunch of damage as she squeezes me with her many legs, like she’s Pris from Blade Runner multiplied by four or something. I am very low on hit points now, but I am just about hanging in there, so come the 17th January I get to the end of the tutorial – intact, but barely. The bomb is set and we cut away right as it’s about to go off. Everything’s going to be fine, right? No need to worry about Commander Barrington just because we’ve not witnessed the cosmos-shattering kaboom, right?

That means come 18th January we get to pick our main character for the actual quest! The Sundial Games website provides rules for generating your own character if you wish, but I think I’ll pass. They have apparently been doing modelling runs and, per the Kickstarter update they posted on the subject, they found that more than half of all the characters produced fully randomly ended up dying way more often than intended, but they also found that if they made custom characters whose abilities had good synergy with each other they vastly outperformed the pregens. If it’s too easy to miss the sweet spot, maybe the rules need a bit more refinement?

In addition, given that the whole ethos of the game is that you do a little bit of play per day rather than sitting down and poring over a character gen system, I’m more than happy to grab a pregenerated character so all the work is done for me. Neatly, the companion booklet not only provides a large version of the character sheets, and the background blurbs, but also provides the higher-level versions of the characters.

Anyway, if the system hadn’t already had ample D&D 5E influence, the various pregens on offer seem to be very much the sort of quirky character beloved by the kids these days, with aesthetics and creature types often clearly lifted from existing D&D lore with suitable names changed. You have a warforged machine-person artificer, a human “cleric” who is clearly intended to be a paladin (don’t think Wizards can control the use of paladin, buds), a dragonborn draakon elementalist wizard, a tabaxi feline monk, a kenku avian necromancer, and a tiefling half-demon swashbucker.

I’m going to go with Mori’an Corvus, the avian necromancer, mostly because his backstory is hilarious:

Mori’an was born with a unique gift. As a hatchling, he pushed a younger sibling out of the nest to see what would happen. When she died from the fall, he was there to bring her back from the dead. He has been fascinated with death ever since.

And there, with our selected pregen travelling to the settlement of Graycliff to take part in a tournament there, I think I will leave things off for the time being. I think I will do my next episode of this series to cover the rest of January, and then from there switch to a monthly update schedule.

The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 7)

It’s time for another entry in my infrequent series of Fighting Fantasy gamebook reviews. This time around, we’re going to wrap up the rest of the series’ gamebooks from 1986. We’re now four years after the series has released, but there’s a sense that the early boom is beginning to plateau – six gamebooks were released in 1986 (two of which I reviewed in my previous article in this series), but that’s less than the 1985 peak (7 mainline gamebooks plus the final volume of Sorcery!), and the quality is starting to get a bit hit and miss.

This time around, I’m going to get to cover four gamebooks from four different authors, each of whom applies a different approach to their gamebook-writing craft. The main common factor is, as always, that in whatever the scenario is YOU are the hero…

Trial of Champions

Scenario

Ian Livingstone’s first Fighting Fantasy book since Temple of Terror is a sequel to Deathtrap Dungeon. Baron Sukumvit has redesigned his infamous dungeon and is offering his challenge once again. You have no intention of participating – but Lord Carnuss, the Baron’s good-for-nothing brother, has his eye on the prize purse! He therefore has kidnapped a range of warriors – including you – and sets them against each other in a grand elimination tournament until only one is left. The sole survivor will be Carnuss’ champion in the Deathtrap Dungeon challenge; should you survive, it is only by mastering Baron Sukimvit’s maze that you’ll have a chance to take down Lord Carnuss. There, nice and simple.

Continue reading “The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 7)”

The Terralon Diary, Part 1: Are You Sure Blowing Up Bits of the Cosmos Is a Good Idea, My Liege?

Hello folks, as promised I’m going to spend 2022 working my way through The Gates of Terralon, a linear RPG experience presented in the form of a desk calendar. Here’s how the first week of that went.

Office tear-off desk calendars, of course, often combine Saturday and Sunday into one sheet, and the Quest Calendar series is no exception, so since this year starts on a Saturday we’re off to a slow, gentle start. The calendar opens by explaining to us that before we choose a PC, we’ll go through a short tutorial section playing an assigned character just for that part, and encouraging us to familiarise ourselves with the rules for this first couple of days. OK, fair enough.

3rd January introduces us to our character for this tutorial: Commander Royce Barrington, commander of the king’s armies in the fight against a rampaging demon horde. No character sheet is given for him in the accompanying hero book, since we’ll only be playing him for a bit – his stats are on the back of the sheet for 3rd January – but I will use the blank sheet in the Hero Book to record his stats since it’s a bit sturdier than the 3rd January sheet (and it gives me an early chance to see how wipe-clean the markers actually are).

4th January finds the King explaining our mission to us: apparently we’re going to do a surgical strike which will shut down the demons’ link to our world, leaving them unable to enter. Apparently the King and I are both devotees to the god of Law but regard the existence of demons as a sort of divine mistake, so I guess we’re going to eat a big heap of hubris by the end of the scenario.

As the King explains the mission, we roll our stat bonuses on 1D4. The stats are the standard D&D stats, so I suspect the system is going to turn out to be a take on 5E with some of the D&D sacred cows like stats scaling from 3-18 removed – kind of like how True20 also reduced stats to just bonuses, though by my recollection True20 doesn’t randomly generate stat bonuses on a flat die roll – something you do here, and which will seem to result in swingier stats because you lose the bell curve. That said, all my stats are 2s and 3s – the teeny tiny D4 that came with my set doesn’t roll that well, then again D4s generally don’t.

Something I also noted today is that the sheets in the hero book are very good at the whole wipe-clean thing – maybe too good. I’m left-handed, so I kept smudging out stuff as I wrote, and I worry that if I flip to another page in the book to consult the rules I’ll end up smudging my sheet. Probably good that I retained the rules sheets from the calendar for quick consultation too.

5th January is easy enough – it’s weapon selection time. Weapon choice determines an attack bonus, a defence total, and a damage die: I chose a Greataxe, which doesn’t have the best damage but offers decent attack and defence scores. Then on 6th January we get our first skill check – a survival roll to see how our journey to the Sun Temple where our mission is to take place goes in terms of ration consumption. Again, 5E influence is seen here – we have to roll a D20, add our Wisdom modifier, and remember to add our bonus for being an expert at survival stuff. (Neatly, the skill check blurb includes a reminder of what bonuses are applicable.)

7th January gives us a chance to have our first fight – we need to get past the guardian of the Sun Temple by fighting them. We get one round to attack and defeat them, if we don’t defeat them we still get in but are injured by them along the way, we can get a bonus by correctly answering a riddle. This is all nicely communicated. What’s also being communicated is that this guy is a servant of the cosmic force of law, like we’re meant to be, and we’re trying to invade some manner of divine otherworld as part of the big plan to use a massive bomb to destroy the route demons take to get to our world. I’m starting to think our King might not be on the level!

Anyway, that’s the first week’s fun settled. I can already see that doing this on a week-by-week basis might not generate enough material for each article, so rather than do another 7 days before next article in this series, I’ll instead drop another article once I have completed the tutorial section and selected my “real” PC for the adventure to come, which flipping ahead I see should be within the next couple of weeks or so.

The Terralon Diary, Prologue: Let’s Game Through 2022!

Sundial Games’ Quest Calendars series is an innovative gamebook format in which the game unfolds over the course of a year – they’re sold not as books at all, but as desk calendars of the tear-off-a-page-each day variety. The idea is that each day on the calendar is a scene in the story, presenting the player with a little thing to resolve – with necessary information on the resolution being printed on the reverse of the previous day’s sheet. This way, each day when you tear off a new sheet you have a fun little adventure snipped to play through.

I backed the Kickstarter for the 2022 calendar, The Gates of Terralon by Thomas Bedran, and fortunately despite the shipping and materials crisis which seems to have blighted every crowdfunding project (and, indeed, every industry utilising physical goods) I’ve received my hard copy in time for the new year. (Backers and preorder customers who don’t get their calendars in time aren’t out of luck – Sundial have put out PDFs to tide people over until their physical calendars arrive.) I thought it would be fun to play through the game and log my progress here on the blog. Rather than daily (I will almost certainly end up missing some days when I am off LARPing), I’ll probably start out doing this weekly and see how it goes from there – contracting to monthly if the articles feel a bit light.

Before we get into that, let’s take a look at the goodies and the rules rundown. Though you can play with just the calendar (in physical form or PDF format), I paid a little extra to get some handy tools – darling little polyhedral dice (I already have plenty, but these are very cute and compact), dry erase markers, and the Hero Book Companion to scrawl in with the markers. The Companion starts out with a rundown of the rules (handy so you don’t need to hold onto the first few pages in the calendar, though I imagine many players will want to keep hold of old pages to remind themselves of plot points), sheets for logging your equipment and inventory, and character sheets for the various playable characters (and a blank character sheet if you want to roll your own).

Apparently, we have to play through the first few days as a specific character for a sort of tutorial before our character choice opens up, so I’ll get into the PCs listed here in detail when I get to the point of choosing, but I notice immediately that there’s variants of their character sheet provided – one for each level they advance to, which is quite handy. In terms of the rules rundown, it looks like most of the resolution mechanics will be on the daily sheets, though there’s some pointers here about ongoing issues like rest, potion use, followers, and so on. (No unified resolution mechanic that I can see – let’s see how that pans out.)

Two interesting mechanics catch my eye. The first is that combat is on a time limit – rather than roll, roll, rolling until you are defeated, you have a set number of turns to defeat an adversary in, otherwise they win and presumably you suffer some detrimental effect. The second is that there’s rules for continuing after you are reduced to 0 health – you have to roll a die to see what sort of lingering problem afflicts you. We’ll have to see if that ends up putting us in death spiral territory, but it’s good to know we’ll be able to continue even if we get knifed in the heart on January 3rd.

That’s all I’ve got to say for now – I’ll check back with you in early-to-mid January with an update on how the adventure kicks off.

Choose Your Own Fantasy Pounding

Dungeons, Dragons, and Buckaroos is the latest in Chuck Tingle’s Select Your Own Timeline gamebook series, which was inaugurated with Escape From the Billings Mall and continued with explorations of the glitzy film industry, the roving world of the long-distance trucker, and the chilly depths of the Frozen Lake. All the books in the series take place in the morass of interwoven timelines which is the Tingleverse, but so far have taken place in timelines which are fairly close to our own, bar for the statistically higher proportion of bigfeet, dinosaurs, intelligent objects and similar talkative handsome non-humans in the population.

Dungeons, Dragons, and Buckaroos departs from this, set not in the familiar environs of Billings, Montana but a fantasy kingdom which also happens to be called Billings. Ruled over by King Rolo, a sentient talking D20, Billings finds itself under threat from incursions of the Void. A prophecy predicts that a great role-player will arise in the kingdom that will save it from the Void in its hour of need; plucked from your friend’s cottage (in which you were playing a tabletop RPG in which you play people who live in a futuristic world where you have to contend with grumpy bosses and onerous office tasks), you are offered the call to adventure.

Chuck’s billed this as being his longest gamebook yet, and part of that length arises from the way he offers four distinct quests through the gamebook (though these paths do cross ways and intertwine at points, so you can start on one and finish up on another). The overtly-offered choices are those of the warrior, the wizard, and the true buckaroo; there’s also a “sneak” path (think thieves, complete with guilds), which in keeping with the covert nature of the profession is a secret route you can pick up partway through a runthrough.

Naturally, given how in the Tingleverse the “fourth wall” is not so much a wall as it is a revolving door, there’s a certain amount of metatextual playing with the gamebook concept here, but Chuck finds a different angle to take with it this time. In previous entries in the series this sort of thing has largely taken the form of directly addressing the fact that the player is playing a gamebook. This time, the recursion takes a different course, focusing instead on the fact that the main character in the story is a great role-player of the kingdom of Billings and leveraging that to reveal that they are in fact a role-player in the modern day. (Indeed, perhaps a modern day timeline closer to ours than we’ve seen before in Tingle’s work, since I didn’t notice any Tingle-esque characters like dinosaurs or living objects in the modern-day sections of the gamebook.)

Continue reading “Choose Your Own Fantasy Pounding”

Mini-Review: A Rising Tide of Solo Adventures?

In the past I’ve been clear that I think the management change at Chaosium was overall a good thing and that by and large the Moon Design gang have done a much better job of running the firm than the Charlie Krank-led regime. Whilst the work they have done to raise production standards, mend bridges, and pay debts have all been a breath of fresh air, especially considering the doldrums that Chaosium had languished in for so long, at the same time the new team haven’t just been knee-jerk innovating for the sake of innovating. They’ve stopped doing the stuff that didn’t work, sure, but they’ve kept going with things which made sense.

The Call of Cthulhu solo adventure line is a case in point, since to give credit where credit is due its modern revival began under Charlie Krank. After a brief dabbling in solo adventures back in 1985, Chaosium largely left the field for third party licensees to play with, but that all changed with the March 2015 release of Alone Against the Flames – which, coming three months before Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen hit the big shiny button which launched Charlie Krank’s ejector seat, was among the last products put out by the old regime.

Not only has the Moon Design crew kept Alone Against the Flames in the product line, but they have also recognised just how good it is as an introductory adventure, and in that capacity incorporated it into the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set. They’ve also brought back into print updated versions of Alone Against the Dark and Alone Against the Wendigo (the latter retitled Alone Against the Frost), the old 1985 solo adventure releases. Now, with Alone Against the Tide, they’ve put out a brand new solo adventure, hopefully indicating that more solo fun will be coming from time to time in the future.

Credited to “Nicholas Johnson and Friends”, the adventure has you visiting the swanky Massachusetts lakeside town of Esbury. Local dignitary Professor Harris has died; his widow is presiding over a sale of some items from his estate. But why’s a Buddhist monk from India come all this way to the sale? For that matter, who are those toughs in the sharp suits who’ve turned up? Was the Professor’s death really suicide? And what’s with that curious idol he brought back from his expeditions?

Designed to be used in conjunction with either the full-fat Call of Cthulhu rulebook or the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set, Alone Against the Tide comes with a pregenerated investigator in the form of Dr. E. Woods. In fact, character sheets are provided for Ellery Woods or Eleanor Woods – the interior art seems to generally assume you’re Eleanor, and the stats are the same on both versions, but you get a different portrait on your character sheet and a slightly different description of your appearance and clothes depending on which you pick. Regardless of chosen character gender, the adventure pans out the same – Eleanor can choose to flirt with the same women Ellery gets to flirt with – so there’s that.

Alternatively, you can stat up your own investigator, and the adventure includes motivations for whichever of the professions available in the Starter Set you choose (if you’re working with the full rulebook you have to pick one of those professions, and indeed so far as I can tell there’s nothing you need to refer to in there which isn’t in the Starter Set rules anyway). This is kind of just a gesture – ultimately, regardless of who you are, you are interested in some capacity in Professor Harris and/or the work he left behind – but it’s a nice one to offer.

As far as the adventure itself goes, it follows similar principles to Alone Against the Flames: you are in this town, weird stuff is going down, there is a set order of events which are unfolding and thus a fairly linear timeline, but there’s lots of ways you can branch out around this timeline depending on what you choose to concentrate on.

Despite the title, incidentally, the scenario is not actually about Deep Ones! Instead, it’s riffing on the fact that a certain Buddhist holy site shares a name with a certain location in a Lovecraft story, though thankfully the Buddhist priest is an essentially friendly presence who’s filling in the same role as, say, your typical “Catholic priest who’s trying to contain a terrible evil” stock character in other contexts – his order has been containing the horror for generations, Professor Harris was being an arrogant colonialist and disrupted that, the monk’s trying to sort things out before it is too late. Though I ended up getting to a good ending without interacting with the monk that much, an alternate (and easier) route to victory hinges on you befriending him, and in general I think the character is well-handled.

I also quite like the artwork. Since this is a short product (under 100 pages) rather than a hardback – and since it’s aimed in part at people who’ve sprung for the modestly-priced Starter Set and haven’t necessarily got the appetite to the game which would make them pay out more for a more lavish product – there’s no need to give this the lush full-colour hardback presentation of other recent products, and the interior is all black and white. The interior art by Doruk Golcu and Andrey Fetisov are incredibly flavourful, eschewing excessively ornate detail in favour of a more atmospherically murky approach – I’d love to see their work gracing more Chaosium products.

Alone Against the Tide was previously released by Johnson as a homebrewed product by himself alone, as part of Chaosium’s Miskatonic Repository storefront on DriveThruRPG, which is the Call of Cthulhu equivalent of similar publisher-supported “monetise your homebrew” schemes like DM’s Guild for Dungeons & Dragons and Storyteller’s Vault for World of Darkness. Whilst there’s a conversation to be had as to the merits of these schemes, I think it speaks well for Chaosium that they are actually willing to pick out the cream of the crop from the Repository, give it a spruce-up, and release it as a canonised part of the game line – I’m not, off the top of my head, aware of Wizards of the Coast or White Wolf doing the same.

An Epic Destiny In Gamebook Form

DestinyQuest is a line of gamebooks authored by Matthew J. Ward, the first of which is The Legion of Shadow. The first three books were put out by Gollancz, who would then turn down the fourth book, which would emerge some years later following a successful Kickstarter. (This was not without some drama – the original publishers, Megara, went bust, and based on Ward’s news posts on the official site it’s suggested that there was some pretty disreputable actions from their side of the equation which has left Ward somewhat grumpy.)

The books are a lavish proposition; The Legion of Shadow is well over 600 pages long, the adventure comprising some 939 paragraphs, with a colour section in the middle including some maps (of which more later). In some respects it’s somewhat surprising that Gollancz pushed the boat out on the series to the extent of putting out three of these things. That said, the first book emerged in 2012, so with brick-sized fantasy still a healthy seller and Game of Thrones mania kicking off I suppose it made sense at the time. Selling for a chunky £16.99, I suppose the idea was to market it to people who remembered Fighting Fantasy from their childhood and now had the disposable income to spend on a deluxe version of that.

In its chunky page count, the book’s approaching Sword of the Bastard Elf proportions, but DestinyQuest takes a very different approach to the challenge of making a gamebook of these proportions. The key to this is those maps. Each of the three acts of The Legion of Shadow has a different map associated with it, with locations keyed to paragraphs and associated symbols giving you an idea of what’s there. Towns and encampments give you a chance to gather information and buy stuff, quests are offered on the map in four colour-coded grades of difficulty, legendary monsters to battle are indicated, and the final “boss encounter” that wraps up the act is there.

The structure of the adventure then, consists of these non-linear acts in which you can explore the map and have these various mini-quests and encounters in whichever order you wish to have them in, with more linear sections of the story occurring as the intros and outros to the various acts. It’s rather innovative and is great for giving the player a sense of freedom – you can skip the entire act and go direct to the boss fight if you wish, but you’ll miss a lot of information you could have gathered during the act and will probably get slaughtered.

Continue reading “An Epic Destiny In Gamebook Form”

Choose Your Own Brick-Sized Mega-Adventure

In Star Bastards, the first of the Two-Fisted Fantasy books to see release, an elegant new gamebook system was combined with a classic 1980s gamebook aesthetic to deliver quite a good short space adventure. Star Bastards, however, was merely the test balloon. If Two-Fisted Fantasy has really made a mark on the field, it’s through the mighty tome which was the second release in the series: The Sword of the Bastard Elf.

When I say “mighty tome”, I am not kidding: the book is over 800 large-format pages long, and the adventure has some 1825 numbered entries, many of which are fairly long. The rules section runs some 60 pages, though the actual rules for playing the adventure cover just five of these; the rest include a full adaptation of the Two-Fisted Fantasy system for running as a conventional tabletop RPG, with a referee (“Dungeon Bastard”) and multiple players. You’re explicitly encouraged to not read the RPG until you’ve played the adventure at least once, since it’s tied to one of the major locales and therefore could contain spoilers.

As well as providing a massive adventure, plus a simple tabletop RPG system, plus lots of gorgeous art from S. Iacob (available in colour or black and white – though I personally prefer black and white since it really teases out how S. Iacob captures the aesthetic of 1980s gamebooks), The Sword of the Bastard Elf also elaborates on the mythos around Two-Fisted Fantasy.

Continue reading “Choose Your Own Brick-Sized Mega-Adventure”

Hounded By the Law In Deep Space!

Two-Fisted Fantasy is a new series of gamebooks, established via a couple of successful Kickstarter campaigns, which combine old-school gamebook aesthetics with a somewhat novel system approach and a tongue-in-cheek attitude. Purportedly a reprint of a classic 1980s gamebook series by one “Herman S. Skull”; the illustrations are credited to S. Iacob (and I suspect S. Iacob is actually Herman Skull too).

The first book in the series is Star Bastards, which is actually two separate-but-related gamebook adventures between one cover. In one, you take on the role of Miroslaw Hermaszewski, the only Polish national to have ever gone into space – or rather, a weird alt-universe variant on him. See, in the timeline of Star Bastards, Miroslaw’s Soyuz 30 fell into a Farscape-esque wormhole, stranding him on the far side of the galaxy, where he took up a life of roguish adventure and scoundrelry.

Oh, and during his trip through the wormhole the bizarre cosmic forces stretched out his body, so he’s now nearly twice as tall as he used to be.

That’s right, in classic old-school RPG style, he’s a Ten Foot Pole.

Anyway, Miroslaw’s annoyed the authorities of the Conglomerate (“the Glom” for short), one of the major local space empires, so he’s decided to make a break for it to Kitalpha, a renegade world in neutral space where he’ll be safe. To get there, he’ll have to travel along Route 663 – formerly a bustling trade route, now a derelict string of run-down star systems rife with scum and villainy. Controlling Miroslaw, you must safely get him to Kitalpha before the Glom catch up to him.

In the other scenario in the book, you are Inspector Leo Canid, a cute doggy who is also a cop for the Glom. Your task: catch up to Miroslaw and arrest him! If you can bust a few extra crooks along the way, so much the better. The second scenario is, in other words, a process of playing along in the wake of someone else’s playthrough of the first book, to see the consequences left behind in Miroslaw’s wake.

Continue reading “Hounded By the Law In Deep Space!”

Mini-Review: Choose Your Own Pounding In the Frozen Lake

After two expeditions to more far-flung locations, Chuck Tingle’s Select Your Own Timeline series of gamebooks has returned to the familiar territory of Billings, Montana – the core locale of the Tingleverse RPG and a major landmark of Chuck’s wider body of work – for Expedition to the Frozen Lake. This casts you as a retired archaeology professor from Montana State University who is called on by Noro Bibble (an activist Bigfoot) to help oppose the devilish Cobbler Industries, who are drilling for chocolate milk reserves they believe are found underneath the Frozen Lake just outside of town.

To prevent the environmental devastation the drilling will cause, Noro wants you to see if any interesting artifacts can be found in the Frozen Lake, since if there archaeological finds in the lake there will be a legal basis to block the drilling. It won’t be easy, though; whilst there is indeed a temple of the legendary true buckaroos down there, there’s also the force of the Void itself – and cultists eager to serve its whims. And that’s not taking into account professional saboteurs from Cobbler Industries, or the mysterious, murderous Apple Trapper…

If you’ve followed Chuck Tingle for a while – particularly his social media presence – the Frozen Lake will be familiar to you as a signature locale in his personal mythology. From time to time he will Tweet about Sweet Barbara, lost to the mortal world in some disaster and now residing in the lake as a curious entity, her nature partaking of both the conventional Tingleverse and the Void but belonging wholly to neither, speaking with a voice like grinding marbles. She gets to be the cover star this time, and naturally, you get to meet her in this book – as well as facing down the forces of the Void, well-established as being a baleful force. (Those who’ve read The Void Campaign Setting will find its themes make a return here.)

Four books into the Select Your Own Timeline series, Dr. Tingle now seems to have enough of a grasp of gamebook design to try out some really neat experiments. For instance, there’s one point in the book where if you also have Escape From the Billings Mall, you can be dispatched to endure that adventure before continuing this one – because, of course, that timeline includes a Void incursion, so it makes sense that Void cultists from this particular timeline would be able to propel you there. Since the Void’s followers are a bit more aware of the fourth wall than others, their interest in you is in part due to the fact that they have identified you not just as a person intending to meddle with a site important to the Void, but also a gamebook reader – and thus someone capable of steering the timeline of the gamebook. (Chuck reminds us that we have a similar ability to steer our own lives.)

In addition, replay value is added by having some plot elements which can be pieced together to tell a larger story, but which you can only wholly put together if you play the book multiple times. See, there’s two ways you can end up going down into the Lake itself in your adventure: either using Noro’s submarine, or with a more haphazard diving setup provided by the Apple Trapper, who if you make certain choices can end up capturing you for her own purposes. There’s a backstory to the Apple Trapper which makes sense of her motives, but it only becomes evident if you took Noro’s route and discovered a disturbing photograph carried by one of Cobbler Industries’ sadistic agents.

The book is structured such that, if you survive to get back to Billings, you will almost certainly have at least one item of a nature which prompts a halt to the drilling process; what this means for which ending you get depends on the item in question. Maybe you end up on a Delta Green-esque anti-Void task force, captured once again by the Apple Trapper, confronted with your self from a different timeline, or any number of alternatives. On my first playthrough, when I made the choices which seemed best to me before I went back and started experiment to see what else was in here, I ended up Mayor of Billings and was fairly content with that.

But the task force ending is interesting to me; it implies more continuity with Escape From the Billings MallExpedition To the Frozen Lake is not just a fun gamebook in its own right, but also has me intrigued to see just how far Chuck is going to take this gamebook line. By and large I trust Chuck to move on before they get stale, but he’s also got a good knack for keeping a good thing rolling and constantly reinventing it. (His basic Tingler schtick remains funny some six to seven years after its inception. for instance.) Let’s see just how deep this spaghetti-like entanglement of timelines goes…