I wrote I would post more about gamebooks, and then I didn’t. I’ve been playing through the Windhammer entries. There’s some good, some bad. I have lots of thoughts about them. But as a competitor I feel like I should wait until the competition has concluded before I start making my opinions public. If you are interested in criticism right now, Crumbly Head Games is doing daily reviews.
There’s a lot of gamebook playthrough blogs out there and they’re always fun to read. The seats on that bandwagon look mighty comfy, so I figured it might be fun to try one myself. And what better place to start than the infamously difficult Fighting Fantasy entry “Crypt of the Sorcerer?” Known as the most difficult Fighting Fantasy title, the last encounter has something like a 5.5% percent chance of success. And that’s not counting the punishingly narrow correct path, dozens of lucky rolls needed, and masses of unfair encounters en route to the end boss. Sounds like fun!
“Crypt” was written by series co-founder Ian Livingstone. Already known for being something of a pill regarding fairness, here he pulls out all the stops. It’s unclear if he set out to create a difficult book to appease long-time fans, if difficulty was seen as a way of extending the life of the book, or if it was simply a matter of bad rules without enough playtesting.
As with most (all?) of Livingstone’s books, the plot is an excuse to string together encounters before cumulation with a big evil who’sit. This time it’s Razaak, a necromancer who ran amuck in the land of Allansia a hundred or so years ago. Well wouldn’t you know it but some grave-robbers have disturbed his tomb, and thus breaking the enchantment that’s kept him pacified. We’re told this by Yaztromo, Livingstone’s go-to sagely wizard. Who are we? The book only specifies that we’re long-time pals with Yaztromo, and so we are tasked with re-killing Razaak.
Let’s build our character. Normally we would roll for stats, but anything except the maximum won’t see us through the adventure. Even then it’s a slim thing. So we’re going to buck tradation and start off better than the best. Normally a maxed out character would have a Skill of 12, a Stamina of 24, and a Luck of 12. Razaak was originally defeated by the warrior Kull using a magic sword. We’ll be playing as Rull, his great-great-grandson, who has trained his entirely life for the prophesied rematch why not? He’s a bit of a meathead, but a lifetime of lifting boulders and sparing with ogres has left him unprecedented in the realm of RPG stats. Yes indeed, Rull has 13 in Skill, 25 in Stamina, and 13 in Luck. Control yourselves ladies.
The book beings proper with Yaztromo handing us a healing potion that will heal four Stamina points five times, and a wish of good luck as we set out to find Kull’s magic sword. We travel for a bit before reaching the first choice. We can either wade across a river toward the East (and our destination) or follow it northwards. This is a variation of the T-Junction or Which Door choice? It might as well say right or left. And because this is a Livingstone book, making the wrong choice will result in us missing a crucial item. There is a kind of meta knowledge at play here, where we can assume that heading directly toward our goal will mean missing something important, but that’s a rather unfair line of thought to require a player to make. These kind of choices were prevalent in the Fighting Fantasy glory days, but it could be said that one of the core tenets of modern gamebook design is to avoid situations like this.
We opt to stick to the One True Path and head North, where we encounter yet another cross the river or stay Northbound choice. And again heading East will doom us. One instance of this is unfair, two is cruel. North, North, North and we find bees.
Well, Harpoon Flies to be exact. They’ve got poison stingers and we must roll a die to see how many we’re hit by. A 5 or 6 here is an instant-death. Yup, we have a 1/3 chance of a game over. Of course, we roll a 6. Despite that Rull is stronger than literally any other Fighting Fantasy hero, he is not immune to the fickle whims of the RNG. At least we’re treated to an imaginative end.
“The strong poison acts quickly and you find yourself unable to move a limb. You fall out of the saddle head-first into the marsh and hear the hovering Harpoon Flies land on top of you to lay their eggs. You are stricken with terror at the prospect that it will be several days before you die a revolting death.”
Gross. Next time we’ll turn back the clock and give it another go.