Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Caverns of Kalte

Right, Caverns of Kalte.
I decided before starting this one that I'd stick to five disciplines per adventure, rather than adding one each book. Partly because I won't necessarily finish every book without cheating, partly because it's more fun having to make hard decisions like that (or in book five, for example, your choice is limited to which discipline you don't want (probably Mindshield or Hunting)). I will, however, carry items over from adventure to adventure.
It's a good job I made that last decision, because I don't think I'd have managed this one without the Sommerswerd. More on this later.
Caverns of Kalte is easily the weakest book in the series so far. It lacks any real plot, and feels far more like a random dungeon-crawl than Flight from the Dark. It also has a number of significant new problems.
Firstly, it's far less fair on the reader as regards death than the previous two. Not, I should add, because it frequently punishes you directly for making a good decision, but because it contains several points where your survival is down to a random number generation. I died to one of them my first time around. 
It also adds a new mechanic, wherebye disciplines give you bonuses to random rolls rather than helping you explicitly. I'm not very keen on this, at least not to the extent that it was rather overused in this book. If I have Tracking, I damn well want to be able to Track stuff, not just be slightly more likely not to die instantly than if I didn't have it. 
To take one explicit example of random death, the entry to the ice fortress about half-way through the book requires you to have a key of sorts. There are three ways (so far as I could see scanning through) of obtaining this key; two of them involve winning very difficult fights that even the most combat-capable character (i.e. 19 CS + 2 WS +2 MB +8 SS) stands only a 40% chance of winning. The other involves randomly stumbling across the one instance of the key that isn't heavily guarded, something which does not simply require you to be diligent in exploring, but also to make several decisions at various points that have nothing to explicitly recommend them over the alternatives. 
It's also the second book to use a fake time limit. That is, the text tells you have only thirty days, or something to complete your mission, but since it's impossible to actually go over due to the magical staff of teleporting you conveniently get access to, the gameplay doesn't actually support the plot. This makes the decison near the beginning of the book, where you have to choose between a "slow but easy" route and a "fast but difficult" totally unfair and not at all as presented, especially since the difficult route is actually easier.
I'm being rather harsh here, so I'll temper the discussion with some faint praise. The first section of the book, where you navigate the harsh, icy, and freezing kalte (errrr.... pun intended, but I'll shut up now) wastes in which the titular caverns are located, feels tense and exciting. The writer manages to create the atmosphere of sturggling to survive in a harsh environment rather well. Unfortunately, he fills this section with random dice rolls to determine what happens next, meaning you actually get to make rather few choices. 
The later sections of the book, while they contain fewer random rolls, instead opt for having you wander randomly around a relatively featureless dungeon, sorry fortress, with little if anything to base your decisions to turn right or left on.
I seem to be using the word "random" rather a lot, and if had to summarise Caverns of Kalte, that would certainly be how I'd do it.
I should emphasise that I did still enjoy reading it; Joe Dever writes as well as always, and it's well-worth playing, just not as good as the preceeding books. 
The climax is actually not bad, where you actually arrest the traitor wizard you've been pursuing. His punishment is also suitably epic and cool. 
One final harsh word. Or two.
I really don't know how I would have completed the book without the Sommerswerd (the infinity-plus-one sword from book two). The combats were generally relatively easy (except the final one, which was very close) with my +8 bonus, but without it I'd have died quickly. Inevitably, if you hand out +8 combat bonuses, you'll find it impossible to balance the fights for those with and without the bonus. 
Note that I suspect it's possible to beat the game without the sword, but I'm pretty sure this requires you to find the optimal path, which since everything is totally random, will take a long time. With the sword, so long as you avoid the key problem (see above), you stand a very reasonable chance.  I really think Joe Dever would have done better to simply give every player of the book the Sommerswerd if he wanted it to be as powerful as it is, regardless of whether they'd played book 2. He could then have balanced the fights properly for the sword and not worried about people without it.
I re-iterate that Healing is very good. Though Dever has begun to put in a few more opportunities to heal even if you don't have the discipline, but I don't believe there're enough, really.
Oh, and the displines I chose for this run (I completed the book on the second try, stumbling across the key in the right place):
Camoflage, Tracking, Healing, Animal Kinship, Sixth Sense

Monday, 23 February 2009

Fire on the Water

My first thought upon preparing for Fire on the Water was that I really didn't want to play through the entire series with a Combat Score of 10. Accordingly, I decided to reject random combat-stats entirely and settle for average, or as near as possible scores of 14 (Combat) and 25 (Endurance). I selected Sixth Sense as my new discipline, rather unwisely as it turned out.
I should perhaps add that at this stage I had still failed to note the rules regarding Healing and non-combat wounds, but I don't think this had much of an effect upon the game.
Fire on the Water differs from the preceeding book in several ways. Firstly, it's a great deal more linear and tightly-plotted. As in, there actually is a plot. A consequence of the linearity is that it takes much longer to complete, as the book contains the same number of paragraphs. This obviously somewhat reduces the replay value, as there is never really more than one way to get from point to point, though there is of course variation in what happens along the way.
My overall impressions are very favourable (and it seems from a bit of reading that others generally regard this as one of the series' best)- the plot, involving much escaping assassins (or not), a fair bit of sailing around in ships, and a general sense that someone is actively trying to stop you. It also, for the most part, continues in the tradition of the previous book by being fair, though in one instance I was killing taking an action that, while it was pretty stupid, the book was heavily trying to point me towards, to the degree of describing the alterantive (and correct) course of action as "risky", and almost suggesting that the stupid course of action was mandatory if I had the correct item to perform it. 
My biggest complaint, however, is that one section of the book cannot be bypassed without either being fairly stupid and winning a very difficult fight, or having a particular discipline, which, sad to say, was not among those I picked the first time around.
While this does not violate the statement at the front of the book that says that the book should be possible to complete with minimum combat scores if the disciplines are well-chosen, it is still terribly unfair, since there is no indication prior to beginning that this discipline might be required, or even particularly useful.
There are also a number of cases where the book doesn't let you select a perfectly reasonable action. The most glaring example occurs after one of your travelling companions tries to murder you, only in such a way as to make it non-obvious which one of them it was. You are required to immediately attack one of your companions, even if you feel you lack evidence as to which one it was (like me. I guessed the culprit correctly, as it happens, but I'm unsure how I was supposed to know who to target- perhaps I missed something). Even more oddly, it is arguably better to attack the traveller who is weakest in combat rather than the real culprit, particularly if your combat score is poor.
This also, of course, makes it impossible to get through the book without a fight, as was possible in Flight from the Dark.
On a number of occasions, the book actually punishes you (usually mildly) for having a particular discipline, which is a little odd, though not necessarily a problem. 
Towards the end of the book you acquire the magic sword you've been questing towards. This is a massively powerful weapon, as it adds 8 to your combat score (yes, 8), and inflicts double damage against undead. I'll talk about this more in following reviews, I expect, but it seems to create a very large differential between characters who have and have not played book 2.
One last critical point: the ending of the book is very well written and very dramatic, and this book at least I cannot accuse of being insufficiently epic.
I succeeded on my third go, this time, though I got well over half way through the first twice, dying to insta-deaths on both occassions, both discussed above. I eventually swapped Sixth Sense out for the discipline required to complete the book sensibly. If you must put nasty difficult-to-avoid deathtraps in, it would be nice if they weren't close to the end, particularly in a fairly linear adventure.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Flight from the Dark

I'm going to try to review the book as a whole, having completed it, rather than describe my adventures in detail, though the latter will of course come into it. Spoilers are not garuanteed to be absent, though I'll try to avoid spoiling major plot points or twists as far as I can.
The book is basically a survival quest. There's some mention of "warning" the king, but based on the events on the way, it's obvious the king will know about the hordes of monsters pretty soon anyway, so essentially your goal is to escape the hordes and make it to the capital and safety.
It's fairly non-linear; the book is divided into several sections and each has at least two paths through. Generally (at least I think so, anyway) all paths converge between sections, giving you a short mandatory section.
There are quite a lot of insta-death paragraphs. However, the vast majority are clued to some degree, and serve merely to punish you for being stupid- there's none of the East-Death/ West-Safety sort of thing that really annoys me in some other gamebooks. 
It does appear to be possible to get right through without fighting anything, though I personally got involved in two fights in my successful run (I did complete it fairly, well almost- see note later, eventually), against a Giak riding a wolf, and against a ruffian in a shop. 
The scope is not very epic, since you're just trying to survive, but that's not exactly a problem. Later books, I recall, are significantly more epic.
There also isn't much of a plot, and the first section of the book feels like you're just randomly wandering through a wood (mainly because you are). I think it is possible to wander around in circles in this section if you pay no attention to compass directions, but you'd have to be fairly un-alert to do this. 
I have essentially two main problems with the book, one relatively minor, one more severe.
The first is that the best route to take from a plot point of view has you meeting a young wizard very early on, who gives you quite a bit of nice exposition. Unfortunately, you end up severely punished for going this way, having to face a very difficult fight, immediately followed by some mandatory Endurance loss, an avoidable insta-death, and another moderately hard combat. Neither of the fights is avoidable, and one of them (entirely illogically from a plot point of view, too) punishes you wish insta-death for taking what, to my mind, is the most sensible course of action prior to it (the best result, on the other hand, is obtained from taking the course of action that appears to be clearly stupid). If you rolled badly for initial Combat Score, you're likely dead if you choose this path.
The alternative path, which avoids the young wizard, is, by contrast pretty safe. If you play sensibly, and ideally have Tracking and/or Sixth Sense, you should easily get through the first section without any fights or danger. 
My second, and more serious complaint is this:
There is a mandatory paragraph (i.e. all routes lead to it, at least I think so) that gives you a choice. One of the options is clearly sensible; the other difficult to justify. This leads to a second paragraph where the same is true. Picking the two sensible options leads you into an extremely hard fight against a Gourgaz. Basically, if you rolled average combat score, you are very likely dead. If you rolled low, you have no chance at all. Even worse, the text apparently gives you an option to avoid the fight, but taking this very sensible course of action leads to a totally unfair insta-kill.
This is a shame, because past this section I have no complaints with the book at all. The last two sections are very well-constructed, both of them rewarding you for making sensible decisions, and feeling tense and exciting, without randomly killing you for no good reason.
Right, that about sums it all up, I think. The book is fairly short (in terms of completion time) simply because it's so non-linear for most of its run. It took me five attempts to complete, and oddly, the time I completed it was the time I rolled a 0 for combat score (giving me 10, meaning most fights were a serious threat). I took Mindblast and Weaponskill to try to compensate. I died once to the Gourgaz, twice to making a stupid move, once to taking the young-wizard route with a poor combat score. 
My disciplines on my successful run were:
Healing Tracking Camoflage Mindblast Weaponskill-Broadsword
Healing, I should point out, is very good, because the books very rarely give you an opportunity to recover wounds by any other means. However, it's not quite as good as I played it as, because I read the description carelessly and failed to note that it works only on wounds suffered in combat. This, by the way, is something I never noticed playing the series as a teenager, either, so I think it could have been stressed more obviously. 
I never found a broadsword, sadly. 


I'll start by reviewing the game system as a whole. I seem to recall significant updates to the rules once Lone Wolf became a Grandmaster, so I suspect this will be a review of the system for the first five or six books, and I'll possibly do another one after that, depending on how radical the changes are.
I must admit that I'm not a fan of the randomly-generated combat-stats thing. It's so horribly unfair if you happen to roll badly (note: I don't like random-number tables, so I'm going to be using a 10-sided dice for my adventures), and the problem is much worse in Lone Wolf, than, say the Fighting Fantasy series because you carry your stats over from adventure to adventure.
Now it is true that the LW series is generally possibly to tackle without fighting much, or necessarily at all, so a low combat score isn't necessarily going to prevent you from winning, but a high one certainly won't hurt, and I dislike excessive randomness in gamebooks.
However, I do like the kai-disciplines system, where you pick five skills out of ten for your character to possess. I also like the fairly simple and logical inventory rules (you can carry a few large items, any number of small one likes maps, talismans and papers, a weapon in each hand, and some money in a pouch). 
Right, I think it's time to plunge in. First up: Flight from the Dark


Hello, I'm Andrew.
I spent rather a lot of my early teenage years playing various gamebooks- Fighting Fantasy, obviously, Way of the Tiger (which I remember being rather frustrating), and, probably my favourite, Joe Dever's generally excellent Lone Wolf series. 
However, I never actually owned that many of the Lone Wolf books- most of my reads were procured from my local library. Today, I have only one book- a copy of the very first one- Flight from the Dark, and even that is currently several hundred miles away at my parent's house, my own lacking sufficient space to store the vast number of books (game- and other) that I collected as a child.
I've just discovered the Project Aon website, and have now determined to see whether the books are as good as I remembered. This blog is going to follow my progress. I make no specific promises regarding updates, or even finishing the series, though I certainly plan to do so.
Generally I'm going to try to play through the books as honestly as possible to begin with. If I get killed several times, I may begin rampantly cheating and/or checking routes to the end so that I can review the whole book even without necessarily completing it.
I'm not going to bother explaining the rules for the system- if you're curious and/or in need of a refresher course, head over to Project Aon and look them up there. I will, however, briefly review what I think of them in my next post.