Saturday, March 29, 2014

A Delicious Feast of Boiled Lobster

A couple of weeks ago I stumbled upon The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and Island of the Lizard King at the local used bookstore. This might by a common occurrence in the UK, but in my neck of the woods it's a rare thing. The sight of the dubiously rendered American covers was like spying a glint of gold and I snapped both books up at just over a dollar each. Despite their legacy I've never adventured in these two books--and having a few moments to myself today--I sampled what Ian Livingstone's island had to offer. I can't think of a better way to launch this blog than by nit-picking of a twenty year old title.

The background doesn't provide any details as to who we are, just that we're traveling south from Fang to the secluded fishing village of Oyster Bay. I wonder if the implication here is that we're the same adventurer from the previous book in the series Deathtrap Dungeon? If that's the case then a vacation to a remote and quiet village where there's no possibility of danger makes oodles of sense.

I rolled up a 12 for skill (huzzah!), a 16 for stamina, and an 8 for luck. This suggests to me that our character is the glass cannon sort. Maybe a tricky rogue? Prone to nasty maneuvers that quickly incapacitate the enemy while leaving his squishy frame intact. We are told that an old adventuring friend of ours named Mungo lives in Oyster Bay. I feel like "old adventuring friend" for this character means "served under him in the military."

So here's our character: Lord Charles de Charlemont. A minor noble who served a token military stint where Mungo operated as his Lieutenant and muscle. Charles is a self-serving sort who will easily employ underhanded tactics to get what he wants (and to prevent bodily harm). And while he does have an inclination towards avarice, he's not entirely selfish.While visiting Mungo on his way back from attending the Trail of Champions ceremonies he learned that the children of Oyster Bay had been kidnapped by Lizard Men from the infamous Fire Island. Surprising his old comrade, he volunteered to join Mungo on a rescue mission. Let's see how he does.

Despite a lengthy first section, Livingstone doesn't give Mungo much character beyond "his dad was pretty badass." Mungo spends the majority of the voyage to Fire Island going on and on about how his father was this cool circus guy who never backed down from a dare and ultimately walked into the Deathtrap Dungeon on a whim. This passage doesn't seem to serve any point beyond Livingstone's predilection for namedropping. While this comes off more than a little annoying these days I imagine that back in 1984 it was great fun to learn that these books were interconnected.

Still I wish Mungo had gotten more characterization beyond "fisherman guy" and "what a dad!" Considering that he's doomed (spoilers!) I suppose we can let it slide. In consolation we get a lovely crotch-shot from artist Alan Langford.

Far less forgivable a sin is section 1 closing with a T-Intersection. This is a type of player choice where two options are presented with no other context than "Left or Right." They are the absolute antithesis of good gamebook design. Upon landing at Fire Island we're asked if we want to scramble around some rocks to a beach on the left or clamber over some rocks to a beach on our right. All those words about Mungo's deceased dad and yet when it's time for an informed decision all we get is scramble and clamber. Bad form.

Charles picks right because I don't know why. Might as well be a coin flip. Down the beach he and Mongo come across some pirates burying a tempting looking chest. Never one to let a chance to get his hands on some pirate booty go to waste Charles orders the attack. He kicks sand up into the pirates' eyes and unceremoniously cuts them down. Mungo squares off against the pirate captain, but only lasts a moment before he's given a lethal piercing. Charles dispatches the captain and then says his goodbyes to his dear companion of 3 sections. Farewell, sweet Mungo, we literally hardly knew ye. We shouldn't grieve too deeply however, if we had gone to the left beach Mungo would have been snipped in half by a giant crab. Dying to a band of pirates is a little more dignified, to me at least. Either way, the intriguing premise of adventuring with a companion is laid to rest.

Inside the chest are iron bars instead of gold. Charles takes one anyway because a profit is a profit, and then sets off into the island's steamy jungles. It's hard going and Charles is the lazy sort, so he sits at the base of a tree and dozes off. He wakes to find a vine has winded its way around his neck. He manages to cut himself free, but not before losing a skill point for his negligence. Next up are some headhunters because of course there are. They don't leave much of an impression and are easily dispatched. Here we get what feels like the adventure's first significant choice. To the south we can see a column of smoke which Charles presumes is from a village. To the west the jungle appears to thin out some, and to the northwest lies a smoking volcano. We don't have a clear indication of what lies in any of these directions, but are given enough context that our decision feels like it has some weight behind it, even if it is only due to personal preference. Charles has had just about enough of this jungle and so heads for the clearing.

Breaking out of the trees Charles finds himself on the edge of a wide marshland. Dashing past him is a gremlin-like creature called a Marsh Hopper. These fellows know the best path through the treacherous bog but also like to lure travelers into traps. Here's an even better type of choice: we are given suggestions to the dangers of both options and left to pick which we feel more capable of handling. Charles reasons it's better to sick with the evil you know and follows the little goober.

At one point the Marsh Hopper veers south. In his arrogance Charles opts to follow just a bit further and welp, looks like he's been led straight into the hunting grounds of a twin-headed Hydra. This is a bit more than Charles was prepared to deal with. The Hydra counts as two foes and Charles has to face them simultaneously. The heads both have skills of 9 however, which means Charles has a slight advantage.

It's a hard fight, and here in the Hydra's environment there's not much Charles can do except tackle the serpent head-on. Charles is no slouch with a sword, and while he takes 10 damage worth of injuries, he manages to cut off one head and take the other down to 3 stamina. Alas, the second head gets in two lucky strikes and so Charles dies alone and forgotten in the swamp. Guess he wasn't the right man for the job.

Not a very successful playthrough but I feel like it highlights of some of the things I value in gamebooks: imaginative engagement, character, and design. I hope to expand on all of these topics in the future. In the meantime, despite my nitpicks this was a fun little excursion. The encounters are imaginative, if a tad under-described for my tastes, and the setting is certainly evocative. I suspect I'll be visiting Fire Island again real soon.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Philip, it would be great to talk about an idea. Could you please email 'quim' at ''?