Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Fighting Fantasy #8 - Scorpion Swamp

Title: Scorpion Swamp

Author: Steve Jackson (USA)

Illustrator: Duncan Smith

Published: 1984

Level of previous knowledge: Ah, Scorpion Swamp. I remember this one quite well. Three wizards, three quests, a bunch of magic spells and an infinite amount of those damned irritating sword trees. If I can't manage this one it's because I did something really, really stupid. Or rolled a SKILL of 7.

Plot summary: A good deed has earned me some kind of magic ring which has an unfailing built-in compass and evil-proximity detection functionality. This is quite powerful, so the obvious thing to do is go off and die in a swamp somewhere so that the ring cannot possibly fall into the wrong hands. Also something about mapping.

Rules: This book has a magic system with three types of spell - good, evil and neutral. The spells you get to choose from depend on which wizard you decide to deal with. Despite the section in the rules called 'Stamina and Provisions' there are no provisions in this book - for some reason being able to cast spells removes the requirement to eat.

Click here to skip the adventure log

Adventure Log

Attempt #1
Stats rolled: SKILL 7, STAMINA 24, LUCK 9
I asked for that didn't I? At least with stamina like this my death will be protracted and painful.

Arriving at the small town of Fenmarge, I did what every good adventurer does and headed for the tavern. There I announced to the local population of slack-jawed yokels that I intended to explore Scorpion Swamp. At this news their jaws became slacker (four generations of inbreeding shows) and they tried to discourage me from this plan. As I turned away an Amish farmer appeared from nowhere and persuaded me that I should have some kind of quest to make entering the swamp worthwhile. I agreed to this, and started glancing around the tavern for floating yellow exclamation marks above the heads of the locals. The farmer explained that there were three wizards nearby - one good, one evil and one er, strange. I opted for the latter, in the hopes that such a wizard might not notice that I have all the combat skill of a ham sandwich.

So I sought out Poomchukker, eventually finding his house in the village market. The door was opened by a goblin serving girl. All my instincts screamed at me to turn and run from this fearsome foe, but I bravely stood my ground and was invited inside. After an attempt ro buy the ring from me which I immediately regretted refusing, the wizard explained that he wanted someone to map the route through the swamp to a town called Willowbend so that he could send caravans through. He then gave me a few spell gems to help me out, none of which looked particularly helpful against deadly sword trees.

I merrily departed the wizard's home and made my way to the swamp, where I committed another huge mistake by striding past the sign which warned me to turn back. Reaching the first clearing, I immediately tripped over a root and hurt my leg - I really wasn't cut out for this swamp stuff. Heading eastwards, I made my way to more solid ground where I was offered the opportunity to rest after my long, arduous journey so far. Tempting as it was, I decided to move on and also ignore the hollow tree in the clearing which looked certain to contain something deadly - a small badger perhaps.

From here I headed northwards, soon finding myself in a clearing covered in spider webs. Lacking any option to immediately turn and run for it, I walked into the clearing and found myself face to face with the Master of Spiders, a nasty-looking fellow with pointy ears and no access to a razor. I decided that the best course of action would be to set him on fire, and did so. He took exception to this, dying angrily before the entire clearing went up in flames while I escaped with singed eyebrows.

Running north, I arrived at a grassy clearing with no sign of spiders or evil-looking roots to cause me harm. As I paused to catch my breath I was assaulted by the grass itself. Hacking my way out with some difficulty and significant stamina loss, I limped eastwards where i encountered three odd-looking creatures which were apparently swamp orcs. "I say--" I began, before a pair of arrows were released, one of which caught my arm on the way past, making me even less skilful than I was previously. At this point I didn't like my chances of surviving any combat, so I ran for it, barging past them and not stopping until I found myself at another junction. I didn't know whether or not to be relieved that they hadn't pursued.

Heading westwards this time (this was going to be a hell of a caravan route) my brass ring started flashing and a calm voice said 'WARNING - EVIL PROXIMATE'. OK it didn't, but that would have been cool. Instead it tingled a bit, and I looked around to see a whole load of scorpions scuttling towards me. Transfixed in horror, I stood there like an idiot while the evil things crawled all over me, stinging all the way. Running off again (I should have adopted the position earlier) I headed north, arriving at a stone bridge crossing a river. Casting a stamina spell in case the bridge decided to attack me, I stepped gingerly on to it and started the crossing. Fortunately there were no nasty surprises.

On the other side of the bridge was a huge tree standing alone in the middle of a clearing. Suspiciously eyeing its branches for any signs of swords, I stopped to look upwards, spying a large nest at the top. Its owner then arrived and glared at me. I had no idea what the eagle was trying to tell me and pondered asking it for directions, but eventually thought better of it and backed westwards out of the clearing.

I stepped around a tree to meet a dwarf. Irritatingly, however, he wouldn't be much use in providing me with directions due to the giant scorpion pincers around his neck. Offered the chance to perform a heroic rescue or a cowardly retreat, I of course chose the latter, only mildly annoyed that I wasn't offered the more despicable option of waiting for the scorpion to lose interest in the dwarf's corpse and then having a good old fashioned loot.

With a cheery wave I continued northwards, turning west at a crossroads. The path turned southward, away from the direction in which I was generally trying to head, but at the junction a ball of dancing light was trying to beckon me westwards, off the main path. As tempting as this was, my innate fear of bumping into an evil television set asserted itself and I decided against entering the murky undergrowth.

Following the path southward, I found myself in a marshy clearing containing a large, fetid pool. Sighing and preparing for the worst, I approached, watching the pool and awaited the inevitable... lump of slime which heaved itself out of the pool and into my intended path. Dismissing the idea of trying to leap over it (such heroics are reserved for those with less ranks in Clumsy Foolishness) I froze it with an Ice spell, which worked remarkably well, and proceeded westwards once more, aiming a smug kick at the frozen remains on the way past.

Distracted by my own sense of not-quite-as-much-inferiority, I almost blundered into the gang of brigands up ahead. Hiding behind a benevolent-looking tree, I considered my options. Informed by the text that 'there is no need to be foolish', I figured that 'Charge out at them, shouting and waving your sword' could result in a sub-optimal outcome. I didn't want to turn back so I was left with a choice between magic or diplomacy. A glance at my character sheet and... diplomacy it is! (This assumes that evoking pity is a form of diplomacy.) Walking out to greet them, I was soon challenged by their leader. My plan had worked and they didn't feel that attacking me five-on-one was very sporting. However they seemed to believe that a fair fight with their leader was sporting - an assertion I disagreed with heartily, but went along with because it was better than the alternative. Fortunately, the fight was only to first blood and if I lost I would have to hand over something of value. Presumably my preferred solution of just handing something over without all the violence wouldn't have been sporting. Duly losing the fight, I handed over one of my spell gems and was allowed to continue on my way, after a nice cup of tea and a sit down. Spiffing chaps, these brigands.

Now heading north once more, I found myself on a progessively wider path which eventually led me to the town of Willowbend! Choosing a tavern at random, I found myself in a bedroom above the Black Bear, which was apparently an extremely popular night spot with the locals. I was offered the chance to go downstairs (presumably in my pyjamas, teddy bear in hand) and threaten an entire barful of drunken louts into jolly well keeping the noise down. Or I could just dream of being that stupid. Eventually I woke up to the sounds of the morning market, arose and left town again without so much as a spot of breakfast. Of course, now that I had the route to Willowbend mapped out I could do the sensible thing and go back around the swamp the long way, to avoid the perils within.

Or I could march straight back through like a sucker.

Fortunately the brigands remembered how pathetic I was and didn't feel like bothering me again and I continued my journey unmolested as far as the eagle's nest. Here I was told that I was really honestly quite curious about the extremely fascinating bundle of twigs in the tree above me and was offered another chance to explore the opportunity to have my eyes pecked out. Somehow resisting the temptation, I headed south until I arrived in a clearing containing hundreds of familiar-looking scorpions. They recognised me too, and swarmed towards me in the hope of seconds. A Fire spell soon taught them a lesson, and rather than hang about to make scorpion kabobs I left the clearing in a hurry.

Remembering that I was forced to run through this area of the swamp in a comical fashion because of all the mild peril, I decided to deviate slightly from the route I took on the way to Willowbend. Turning west, I entered a clearing where a man in a rather fetching hat was sat against a tree, eating cheese. He invited me to join him, but my ring warned me that his alignment did not make this a sensible plan. Choosing to pass him by but not make any attempt whatsoever to keep an eye on him, I shouldn't have been surprised when he sprang to his feet, choked me with his garrotte and robbed me blind. All I had left was a Stamina spell gem, however, and I was glad he left me with my sword, or my combat effectiveness would have descended to that of a tree stump.

The next clearing showed all the signs of a bloody battle. Now in a hurry to get out of the swamp before I encountered something deadly (a small vulture, for example), I declined the chance to wade in the gory remains looking for valuables and moved on. I then bumped into (not literally, thankfully) a wounded unicorn, which seemed up for a fight. I, on the other hand, was not, and was forced to run back the way I came. Back on my original route, I was again thwarted when I found the clearing where I met the Master of Spiders was still very much on fire. Retreating once more, I found myself in the clearing where I bravely defeated several orcs' attempt to kill me by running away from them. This time I was offered no such luxury, and I was forced into combat with all three of them at once. I managed to kill one but after five rounds I succumbed to their lesser incompetence.

Conclusion: Failure. So that's what it feels like to be the pinball...
Number of combats: 5

Attempt #2
Stats rolled: SKILL 9, STAMINA 20, LUCK 10
OK, providing I don't manage to trip over and cripple myself on the way to the swamp I might stand a chance this time.

After my chat with Gronar, I decided that his strategic pause after mentioning the Good wizard was a cynical attempt to manipulate my choice. I therefore decided that I would rebelliously approach the evil wizard, Grimslade. Leaving Gronar in mid-praise of the Good wizard's animal rights record, I wandered off to the edge of town in search of a suitably forboding tower. Eventually I spotted a building displaying all the traditional staples of evilness - bats: check, heads on spikes: check, gargoyles: check, pointy towers: check. As I approached the front door it swung open, revealing the wizard himself. At this point I was seriously considering a cop-out story - something about being a humble merchant - but this idea was shattered when the wizard announced not only that he knew why i was here, but also that he believed I was a pathetic waste of space. Indignant, I challenged him to a fight. In typical evil villain style, however, he summoned a minion to take his place - in this case a stone statue of a goblin. I clubbed it to dust with a table leg, but the wizard was unimpressed by my failure to avoid injury, derided my ability and complained that I'd made rather a mess of his room. I never did have much control over my temper, so a couple of minutes later I found myself looting his skinny corpse. Happily this resulted in the discovery of a magical sword, which I immediately trusted to not be an Unholy Despicable Weapon of Ultimate Cursed Doom which would suck out and enslave my soul, and took with me. Then I scarpered, being an experienced enough adventurer to know that when you kill an evil villain, his lair/cave/castle/tower always collapses (in this case, it explodes).

Conclusion: Victory! Oh right, the swamp...

Deciding that evil wasn't so great after all, I finally succumbed to the book's urgings and visited the good wizard, Selator. Despite a rather less impressive home, Selator was apparently a wizard of significant power, at least enough that he can use a crystal ball to find a plant several miles away. My mission would be to find this plant and return with one of its berries so that he could grow many of these plants and presumably save the world with their healing powers. He gave me a selection of spell gems and sent me on my way. As I headed towards the swamp I reflected that my visit to the evil wizard's home was far more interesting.

Successfully negotiating the detestable hazard that is the 'soft part' of ground in the first clearing, I headed westwards. I soon came across a log cabin, inhabited by a large hairy man who I immediately recognised as the Master of Wolves by the amulet he wore (despite having no reason to know that the Masters wore amulets). He told me to bugger off, and I saw no reason not to comply (and a couple of growling reasons to obey).

Coming to a shallow stream containing 'movement', I was given the option of wading across, or casting spells that I didn't have. I shrugged; what kind of hardy warrior would turn back because of a little water? Splashing through the water, I attracted a few leeches which attached themselves to my legs - I assume that if I had picked up any infections from the water then the leeches took care of those for me, so the loss of a few stamina points was a good trade.

Heading northwards, I groaned as I recognised the part of the swamp I had entered. Keeping an eye on the blade-wielding branches around me, I rifled through my bag for a useful spell gem, but the only spell that may have been useful was apparently the sort of magic that only evil wizards would contemplate. Fortunately my sword arm did not let me down and I made it past the gauntlet relatively unscathed.

Feeling pleased with myself, I wandered into a clearing and found myself face-to-horn with a wounded unicorn. The daft thing was mid-charge when I cast a Bless spell, healing its wounded flank. It whinnied happily before showing me where a couple of spell gems were conveniently buried - sadly containing two spells I already had, Friendship and Luck. Still, you can never have too much of either, said the unicorn, pooping a rainbow under a tree. Feeling slightly nauseous, I continued northwards.

Eventually I found myself on a riverbank, looking across a watercourse filled with crocodiles and 'other creatures' that the crocodiles had allowed to live. Given the lack of any option to feed myself to them, I meandered along the riverbank until the ground rose some twenty metres above the water and the path petered out. I was then given the option of turning southwards away from the crocofile-infested river, or diving in and attempting to swim across (known as "dinner from above"). At this point I was reminded of the wise words of my old mentor from Adventurer School: "Don't be stupid." He said that quite often, for some reason. I waved cheerily at the sunbathing crocodiles (sunbathing, of course, despite the 'evil fog' that covers the entire swamp) and headed back to the south.

Entering a pleasant glade, I met a cheerful man I presumed to be a leprechaun, sat against a tree and enjoying a picnic. My ring buzzed on my finger and I was informed that the man was evil and a thief. Marvelling at my ring's new-found ability to discern the profession of others, I decided that I didn't want this chap potentially following me around the swamp, waiting for me to turn into a corpse, so I took the initiative and attacked him. He turned out to be tougher than the average leprechaun (or perhaps it was just a cunning disguise) but I defeated him without serious injury before stealing (I guess the correct term is looting, but I like irony) his cheese and an ostentatious red cloak.

The next clearing was scorpion HQ, where all the swamp's scorpions hang out and wait for assignment. Ready for them this time, I leapt heroically to safety and continued to the oddly-sturdy stone bridge which I crossed without incident. Beyond the bridge I came across the large tree, complete with glaring eagle. Eagles apparently don't remember adventurers who met them in past lives, so I backed away carefully.

Congratulating myself on successfully avoiding the last few obstacles, I marched confidently into the next clearing where the unfortunately dwarf was busy being pincered by a giant scorpion. At this point all common sense fled, and I waded into combat. After several painful rounds, however, I was forced to escape and leave the stout fellow to his fate as a short snack. I could almost feel Selator frowning at me from afar.

Northwards I ran, past a crossroads until I was forced to slow down by some inconsiderate boulders. Atop one of them stood a ranger - apparently I knew this because he was dressed in green, despite the fact he only had one sword and had no hood, ranged weapon or animal companion that I could see. I told him whom I served, and he suggested that I speak to the Master of Gardens, who lived nearby. I left him to his stationary ranging and followed his directions to, unsurprisingly, a lush, well-tended garden. There, the Master of Gardens greeted me and gave me further directions that would lead me to the plant I sought.

Marvelling at the prevalence of friendly people in this dark, dangerous, forboding, uninhabitable, impassable, hellhole of a place, I followed his directions until I came face-to-knee with a huge giant with Gandalf syndrome. A bit of flattery and some softly-spoken words of sympathy persuaded him to let me pass, however. It turned out that his favourite handkerchief was stolen by a thief, who was then killed by me, and now here I was with the Red Cloak of Snot Collection in my possession - what a coincidence! Warning me of wolves ahead, he left me to continue on my way. Sadly I was not offered the opportunity to use a Friendship spell to encourage him to accompany me as a personal bodyguard.

A short way to the north, I found what I was looking for, as well as the saddest excuse for a final boss ever - yes, the wolves I was warned about. One of which died before it could say 'arooo'. Dispatching the other quickly, I examined the Antherica plant to find a single berry which had implausibly avoided being eaten by the local wildlife. Stowing it carefully in my backpack (one would have thought Selator or I would have had the foresight to prepare a small lunchbox or something for this purpose), I turned and headed back southwards.

Much of this journey was uneventful - the giant had wandered off, the giant scorpion had finished his meal and nothing was left but leather armour and bones (I assume the dwarf's weapon provided chronic indigestion) and the eagle was nowhere to be seen, presumably busy glaring at something else. I leapt over the scorpions once again and found myself back in the clearing containing the thief's looted remains. From here I took a slightly different route, aware that the sword trees were waiting not far from here. Heading southwards, I walked straight past the remains of a bloody battle and into a clearing where I was forced to hack my way through the rather unfriendly grass before progressing to the next area which was the home of the Master of Spiders.

Oops, I forgot about him.

Having no Fire spells with which to cause a spider apocalypse, I was forced to fight the unpleasant fellow in melee combat. Three hits from his nasty poisonous weapon would have finished me off, but fortunately he only landed one before he fell. Grabbing his amulet caused a spark to leap from it and set fire to the whole clearing - a bit of a design flaw, that. Running for my life, I made my way back to the edge of the swamp, past the ominous-looking hollowed-out tree and the fearsome 'soft part' of ground which could well have nearly finished me off.

I emerged from the swamp, battered and exhausted, and made my way to Selator's hut where the wizard waited. He was delighted to receive the berry, even though it was a little bit squashed by the remaining spell gems I had rattling around in my backpack. I stood, slightly swaying, eagerly anticipating my grand reward. Selator gave me some healing potions (the least he could do, really) and 'a hot meal'. Grimslade at least would have given me 500 gold pieces for the amulet I brought back. I risk life and limb for a flipping BERRY, and what do I get in return? A chicken casserole.

Conclusion: Success! For what it's worth.
Number of combats: 8


Writing: A very straightforward plot - no saving the world or anything like that. It seems like you're risking your life for relatively small benefits (and in my case, very small rewards). The swamp is described well enough although in many places it felt less like a dark, oppressive place and more like a romp through the forest. The book has a strong bias towards being good and doing the right thing to the point that, even if you successfully complete the 'evil' storyline, you are given a telling off and assumed to regret your actions. What if I just wanted to be plain evil?
Writing: 2/5

Artwork: The front cover leaves a lot to be desired, evoking memories of the famous Bloodbeast from Deathtrap Dungeon but nowhere near as detailed or fearsome. The interior art work is slightly better but much of it seems quite faded and there are very few pictures that show any kind of backgrounds that give any impression that you're in a dangerous swamp.
Artwork: 2/5

Design: Scorpion Swamp is unique in that it plays almost like a board game, with fixed locations that can be navigated and re-visited. This is handled quite well for the most part, with each clearing having a reference you should turn to if you have been there previously. It does fall down occasionally though, with some odd situations occuring, such as approaching a bridge from the north, then having to cross the bridge to leave northwards. The layout is fine - it doesn't map perfectly in a couple of places and it would have been nice to get some idea of how far you're travelling between clearings in these cases, but it's supposed to be difficult to navigate anyway. There isn't much to mention beyond the navigation though - some more items usable in different situations might have made things more interesting.
Design: 3/5

Fairness: All in all this doesn't seem too difficult an adventure at first, and my memories of it certainly weren't frustrating ones, but it isn't an easy as you might expect. There are a few encounters which can really cause you problems and a couple of wrong choices could make things awkward even for a highly skilled adventurer. The three quests vary slightly in difficulty but this isn't a bad thing - serving evil should probably be more stressful than doing good.
Fairness: 4/5

Cheating index: 0 Razaaks

Average enemy stats
Successful path
8 encounters, SKILL 8.3, STAMINA 9.4
Entire book
X encounters, SKILL 9.1, STAMINA 9.0

Instant death paragraphs:16 plus a few endings of dubious success

Any player can win no matter how weak initial dice rolls: With the right spell gems and some prudent choices in the swamp, this may well in fact be TRUE.

Final thoughts

Scorpion Swamp won't go down as one of the great classic Fighting Fantasy gamebooks but it does deserve praise for being a little bit different. The board game-like style allows a level of non-linearity rare in gamebooks and gives the player a sense of freedom. Combined with some robust game design it could have been a real winner, however the straightforward gameplay and unexciting plot hold it back somewhat.

Final score: 5/10


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Friday, 15 August 2014

It's About Time...

In traditional blogger style, the few weeks I implied in the last post has turned into 7 and a half months. However I've finally gotten back on the FF horse and completed my Scorpion Swamp playthrough (the horse, however, did not make it). I'm on holiday for the next week but will be posting the playthrough next weekend, and making a start on Caverns of the Snow Witch soon after. If I have any followers left, thanks for your patience :)