The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 3 - Sorcery Special!)

by Arthur B

A review of Steve Jackson's four-part Sorcery! series of linked Fighting Fantasy adventures.
~

Previously In Arthur's Fighting Fantasy Reviews


I tackled the beginning of the venerable series, and I covered Ian Livingstone's inspirational run of solo-written gamebooks, as well as the first book written by a third party. Now, whilst the books in the second review were being written and published, Steve Jackson wasn't standing idle - he was producing Sorcery!...

Sorcery!: Taking Fighting Fantasy to the Limit


The first of the Sorcery! series came out in 1983, and with 456 numbered paragraphs was the largest Fighting Fantasy adventure published at the time - but, to give you an idea of the scope of Sorcery!, it's actually the shortest gamebook in the sequence, with the final volume having a whopping 800 paragraphs; the full saga comprises over 2200 paragraphs. With a single story mapped out over four gamebooks, intricate connections between the books, a full spellcasting system, and the option to play as a warrior or a wizard.

Considering the unique nature of this book, I've changed the format of the reviews a little: I'll cover the scenario and the system in this first little segment, and then the entries for each book will cover my attempts at solving them, as well as the possessions I had managed to accumulate so far.

Scenario


In a fantasy land based vaguely on the Dark Ages, the Crown of Kings is a powerful artifact of rulership; the mere possession of the Crown by a nation's ruler boosts the economy, promotes law and order, and ensures peace and prosperity through no action on the owner's part. An Alliance of civilised, peaceful, nice kingdoms pass the crown around every 4 years, so that no one nation dominates Alliance, and so each kingdom in turn can gain benefits.

You are from the kingdom of Analand, the most recent beneficiary, which exists in the southwest of the large, untamed region of Kakhabad. On the dread night of the Black Moon, birdmen from Xamen steal Crown and take it to the Archmage of Mampang, who intends to conquer all of Kakhabad; a united Kakhabad could be a great danger to the entire Alliance, especially if it enjoyed the benefits of the Crown of Kings! Worse still, the benefits that the Crown brought Analand and the other Alliance nations are rapidly evaporating. Your mission, across Sorcery! series as a whole, is to journey across Kakhabad and steal back the Crown; The Shamutanti Hills covers the journey from the gates of Analand to the borders of the nefarious city of Khare, Khare: Cityport of Traps concerns itself with the perils of that city, The Seven Serpents details the journey from Khare to Mampang Fortress, and The Crown of Kings covers the heist at the fortress itself.

In classic trad-fantasy style, there is an entirely pointless map that accompanies the backstory in each book. You can pretty much safely ignore it.

System


Sorcery! offers a simple or "advanced" set of rules - I say "advanced" because there's barely any additional complexity. Pretty much the only difference between the simple and the advanced game is that in the advanced game your skill is lower - you only roll add 4 to a roll of a six-sider instead of 6 to determine it - and you get to do magic. Aside from this, at first glance there's barely any difference between the system of Sorcery! and that of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, aside from the magic system (described below) - but in fact there are numerous elaborations which are essentially coded into the game itself, like a resting system and starvation penalties. By discovering these subsystems through play and gaining an understanding of them you can greatly increase your chances of success, though none of them are so counterintuitive that an attentive player can't work them out.

The magic system in the advanced game is heavily inspired by that of the Tunnels & Trolls RPG (much like the Fighting Fantasy system in general), in that you have to spend Stamina points to cast spells; the more powerful and useful the spell is, the more points you have to spend to set it off. It also borrows an idea from Dungeons & Dragons in that wizards have to memorise their spells - but in this case, it's the player who has to do the memorisation, not their character (and spells aren't forgotten when they are cast unless you have a brain like a sieve). All of the spells in the game are identified by three-letter codes, and you have to remember what they all do and whether the spell you want to cast requires any special tools or ingredients - you're not allowed to look up spell descriptions once you start play. If you choose an inappropriate spell - or worse, one which does not exist - you lose a large number of Stamina points, and quite possibly lose the opportunity to cast the correct spell too. There's 48 spells, so it's tough to memorise all of them, though the book does helpfully point out which of the spells are likely to be of most use, and the three-letter codes all bear at least some relation to what the spell does (so FOF produces a FOrce Field, for example). The spellbook is very pretty, with lots of fun illustrations; it's included at the back of each book in the series (or at least it was in most editions I'm aware of), and was also available as a separate book when the series first came out.

In addition, whether or not you are a wizard you can get help once per book from Libra, your patron goddess; you can either call on her aid when it's given as an option in the text to escape from danger, or at any time you like to boost your stats back to full strength, or to cure yourself of all curses and diseases. The character options, the addition of divine intervention in a sort of "if you do not listen, then to hell with you!" style, and the wild and evocative setting, makes playing Sorcery! the closest thing I've seen to playing old-school D&D or Tunnels & Trolls in a gamebook context I've ever seen; yes, the system is different, but the tone is absoluely perfect.

The one downside of the Sorcery! system is that it lacks guidance on what you do if you die in a later book, if you are choosing to play the entire series - do you go back to the beginning of the whole thing, or just the book you died in? And in the latter case, do you lose all your equipment, or do you get to keep the stuff you began the book with? I'm going to go easy on myself and treat the end of each book as a "save point", so that each time I die I will restart at the beginning of the book in question with rerolled stats but the same equipment and information I began the book with. Similarly, I'm going to assume it's OK to rememorise the spellbook at the beginning of each run and the beginning of each book, even if in-character I wouldn't have my spellbook there.

The Shamutanti Hills


Gear

You'd have thought that a kingdom in crisis could afford decent kit when it comes to a desperate quest for the nation's survival, but no: you start the game with just your sword, your backpack, 20 gold pieces, and only 2 meals' worth of provisions.

First Run

Skill: 7
Stamina: 20
Luck: 9

The opening preamble and first paragraph in The Shamutanti Hills might be one of the better openings of the Fighting Fantasy series so far. It sets the mood, has a passing reference to an interestingly strange fantasy concept (the Sightmasters, border guards with magically augmented telescopic eyes), and gives the player some nice hints on how to proceed.

A clever feature of the Sorcery! series is how it introduces all sorts of interesting subsystems that aren't explained in the opening segments of the book, and must be discovered through trial and error, or through getting sage advice in the course of the game: for example, early on in this run I was lucky enough to make the correct choices to get the explanation for how the sleep and starvation system works; essentially, the action of The Shamutanti Hills unfolds over a series of in-game days, and you must eat and sleep once a day or lose Stamina points - and you gain Stamina for eating and sleeping. As far as eating goes, you can choose to eat at taverns you encounter along the way or eat of your sparse provisions (which you can increase if you make the right choices, or if you buy food from markets and so forth); similarly, when it comes to sleeping you can pay money to sleep at an inn or go and camp in the wilderness - though if you camp in the wilds there's a chance you'll have to fight wandering monsters. A balance must be struck between taking risks (depleting your supply of provisions, possibly having to fight a wandering monster) and spending money, especially since I suspect money will prove to be crucial in the next book of the series because it's a city-based adventure.

As well as the time factor, The Shamutanti Hills is arranged interestingly geographically as well; essentially, because you are journeying to the Cityport of Traps, your route inevitably takes you through a series of settlements and villages that act as waypoints on your route (this is normally when you have to choose whether to sleep in an inn or go camping), but at the same time the adventure is highly nonlinear; there's different things you can choose to do in the towns, and you can take very different routes from town to town if you wish. This is essentially a better implementation of the sort of map Jackson uses in Citadel of Chaos and Starship Traveller, and works much better in this context. It also means the prose is less pedantic; there's no obsession with compass directions, since an abstract map between nodes is more likely to be of use than an objective map showing the "real" layout of the Hills.

Throughout this run I was extremely impressed both by the quality of Jackson's prose and the set pieces presented. Between creeping through goblin mines, using magic to detect dangers up ahead, and talking to old men in taverns and getting spooky tips about the route ahead, there's a host of great moments in the book, and the atmosphere is maintained wonderfully. It's also one of Jackson's less arbitrary books, with a few exceptions - there's a part where I lost 4 skill points for making a joke I didn't choose to make, which is pretty fucking harsh, but it's not exactly fatal.

Towards the end of the run I befriended Jann, a friendly minimite (at last, an actual travelling companion in a Fighting Fantasy book!) only to find that the little fucker hadn't mention the magic-suppressing field that surrounds all minimites and prevented me from casting spells. Due to lacking a weapon or any sort of magic I was slain by an assassin in short order; not Jann's fault, but there's no way I'm letting the bastard tag along next time.

Second Run

Skill: 6
Stamina: 14
Luck: 8

As I wove through the various encounters this time - including Aliana, a witch whose powers are perilous but will give you great rewards if you know how to deal with her, and a suitably tricksterish group of "elvins" - think elves-as-in-fairy-tales, as opposed to elves-as-in-D&D - I noticed just how effective magic is as an alternative to swordplay in this adventure. Jackson ensures that wherever the "basic" version of this gamebook would require a high Skill score (something wizardly players are less likely to have), there's a reasonable magic solution at hand instead. Granted, you have to expend Stamina to cast spells, but if you are eating and sleeping regularly you should be restoring your Stamina just as frequently (and it's really not advisable to skip eating and sleeping altogether). Many fights can be avoided altogether.

I encountered Jann again - you meet the magic-suppressing twit at one of the waypoints so you can't avoid him - and I couldn't convince him to fuck off and leave me alone. Realising that the alternative to encountering the assassin is a traipse through a field full of deadly black poppies, I fought the man, despite my inferior skill score, and luckily enough won the day by weakening him enough; the book gave me to the option to spare him, which I did, and he decided to help me out and promised to meet me in the next gamebook. The way Sorcery! usually handles interactions between gamebooks is quite interesting; in the earlier books, you can acquire items and allies which will be of use in a later book book, and when that happens you are given a paragraph reference in the relevant book you can turn to at the relevant point in order to call in your favours or use your advantages. Clearly, Jackson must have written a first draft of the series all in one batch to add these connections later on, which explains his extended absence from the main Fighting Fantasy series during this time period.

Anyway, a little later an old witch tried to poison me, I outsmarted her by carefully not swapping the cups around (she clearly hadn't seen The Princess Bride), and then after she'd gulped down the antidote I gave her an item she was missing so she forgave me and got rid of Jann in return, giving me my magic to help me in the climactic encounter of the book - the troubles of Torrepani, the village of Sad Orcs. The Orcs were sad because a nearby manticore was terrorising them, and one of their kids had got lost in its lair, so I went in, bamboozled it with magic, saved the kid and made the sad orcs happy orcs again; for my troubles I got a sack of cash, restoration of all my stats to their defaults (how convenient! It's almost like this is the transition to the next book...), +1 to my initial luck and a key to the city gates of Khare. The Shamutanti Hills isn't the most difficult Fighting Fantasy book, but on the other hand it really shouldn't be as the introduction to the series. It did, however, leave me excited to see what would happen next.

Khare: Cityport of Traps


Gear (as of the end of The Shamutanti Hills)

Sword, backpack, 18 gold pieces, 2 provisions, noseplugs, pebbles, a skullcap, an odd key, a key to Khare's city gates, and a favour from an assassin.

First Run

Skill: 6
Stamina: 14
Luck: 9 (with a +1 stat boost)

Now, throughout this book I kept noticing similarities to Ian Livingstone's City of Thieves and its setting of Port Blacksands: Khare, you see, is a low-down no-good city full of bandits and pirates and vagabonds, just like Port Blacksands. There's a major river flowing through it, just like Port Blacksands. The guards do nothing aside from guarding the city gates and keeping the aristocratic tyrant of the city alive - just like Port Blacksands It's full of traps because that's how the inhabitants protect themselves from each other, which sounds bizarre except it actually seems to be a reasonable tactic - just like Port Blacksands! This, and the fact that keeping track of your gold is often as important as keeping yourself alive, makes me suspect that Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone originally intended to collaborate on City of Thieves before deciding to do their own separate takes on the same concept.

An early encounter with an old man in a jail cell gave me the lowdown on the main quest that I have to complete to successfully leave the city: the North Gate, which is the only means of accessing the Baklands, is sealed by magic, and can only be opened with the magic 4-line codephrase; the First Noble of the city knows the entire thing, but obviously you're never going to encounter him in this adventure, so you have to collect the phrase line by line from the 4 leading citizens who are each entrusted with one line of it.

On the way, of course, there's all sorts of colourful encounters - and as far as I can tell, almost all of the time combat is completely avoidable. I had a perfectly lovely chat with a mind flayer chef before I tricked him and stole his stuff, and I bumped into my assassin friend at the fair and he guided me to one of the people who knows a line of the spell. (Having some kind of insurance against missing out on plot-critical encounters is really useful in early Fighting Fantasy, so I was glad I didn't kill him.) A painter with no hands and a magic paintbrush painted a clone of me in order to rob me. Oh, and an insane innkeeper tied me up in a deathtrap that I could only deactivate by figuring out a picture-based puzzle. At no point did I get raped by an elven candlemaker, which made the entire experience more pleasant than Port Blacksands. That said, I do miss the use of street names in location descriptions, which Ian Livingstone used to good effect in City of Thieves; it made the process of mapping a bit easier to keep track of.

This run came to an abrupt end when I was killed by a Death Wraith that could only be killed by silver arrows - another element from City of Thieves! I wouldn't have tangled with it, except I suspec that it possesses one of the lines of the poem I need to escape the city, but I at least have a clear idea of where to get the silver arrows for my next run.

Second Run

Skill: 10
Stamina: 18
Luck: 13 (with a +1 stat boost)

This run was a bit of a washout, since it turns out that running into the funfair isn't mandatory - which meant I didn't find my assassin friend, and I didn't stumble across the alternate route to the first line of the poem, which meant that I was pretty much doomed to fail this run. (Oh, I suppose I could have used the line I learned in my first attempt, but that would be cheating.) This time, though, I did notice a fun religious element to the city which wasn't present in City of Thieves; it's home to all sorts of interesting deities and cults and priesthoods, with some temples enjoying a recruiting boom whilst others fall out of fashion, giving the place a sense of history that Port Blacksands lacks.

I made it all the way through to the last encounter, but I didn't get all the clues so I have to restart. Technically, the book doesn't say I'm dead, but I think it's in the spirit of things to reroll my stats and start over; fortunately, this is one of those gamebooks where it doesn't take too long for you to realise what you need to do differently, so I expect the next run should be successful so long as I'm lucky with the dice rolls. That said, my plan does hinge on using my resources from the previous book - the help of the assassin and some of the unusual keys I found, specifically. Clearly, doing well in the earlier stages of Sorcery! is a major advantage when you are playing through the later books, since it opens up alternate routes through the gamebook, and the more viable routes to the end there are the better.

Third Run

Skill: 10
Stamina: 15
Luck: 10 (with a +1 stat boost)

I did, in fact, successfully make it through this time, and I noticed as I progressed that this is a startlingly nonviolent Fighting Fantasy book - I only had to get involved in two fights, both of which are doable if you are properly prepared and have reasonable stats (although I think the Deathwraith encounter will be very difficult for most magician characters, since it has Skill 9 and you don't get to use any of your spells).

The other thing I noted was that the poem is interestingly structured: three of the four lines contain numbers, and you're meant to turn to the paragraph entry corresponding to the three numbers (in the correct order) to see if you got the poem right. The fourth line contains no numbers, but it does provide useful context - it makes it easier to arrange the other lines in the correct order. So you can get through without the fourth line, but only if you make a lucky guess.

The Seven Serpents


Gear (as of the end of Khare: Cityport of Traps)

I'm loaded for bear now! I've got my sword, a backpack, 4 gold, 1 provision, noseplugs, pebbles, skullcap, a magic chain that binds monsters when they're weakened, a parchment with strange script on it, a gold-backed mirror, a green-haired wig, a bow with silver arrows, a tinderbox, a snakebite antidote, a strange ring, and a mysterious poem: "For sleeping of the sleepless ram/Seek out the one they call the Sham".

First Run

Skill: 10
Stamina: 15 (reduced to 5 through injury by end of Cityport)
Luck: 10 (with a +1 stat boost) (reduced to 9 through luck tests by end of Cityport)

At first, The Seven Serpents looked like it's simply going to be another cross-country slog, but within a few paragraphs of starting out I got a message from Analand warning that the Seven Serpents, evil messenger-spies of the Archmage, are making their way from Khare to the Mampang Fortress to warn of my coming, and if I don't take them out as you travel across the Baklands then the Fortress denizens will be ready for me. Fortunately, it turns out that the strange ring I picked up in the Cityport actually has some sort of power over the Serpents, which may prove helpful later on.

Not that I got far enough to encounter any of them: I was killed early on in this run by an acid-spitting beetle, due to my Stamina being wrecked after the Cityport of Traps. Irritatingly, I had forgotten that since I hadn't called on Libra in the course of that adventure, I could have prayed to her to restore my stats to their full scores, but never mind. I did at least survive enough to encounter a hermit who gave me some advice on dealing with the Serpents and tell me their backstory, which is actually pretty fun - the Archmage killed a hydra and made the Serpents out of its necks, and dedicated each Serpent to one of the seven gods he serves to give them exciting individualised powers.

Second Run

Skill: 9
Stamina: 20
Luck: 11 (with a +1 stat boost)

Healthier, happier, and luckier, I avoided the bug and instead met a bunch of centaur bandits, with whom I managed to avoid combat by looking confident but not aggressive. I even encountered some of the serpents this time, and used my fun little ring - it turns out that it doesn't do much beyond forcing them to give me hints and tips about the next book, which is sort of nice, but it doesn't make the battles against them any easier. Weakened by my tangle with the Fire Serpent I was ripped to shreds by invisible cats - there are a lot of tough fights in this volume.

I noticed on this run that there's a large number of arbitrary choices you are asked to make about your route in this part of the series, so I expect that the network of encounters may be quite extensive and complicated - it's a tough book to map, and I suspect I'm missing a fair number of Serpent encounters in the parts I haven't mapped yet. I also found a few instances where the book tells you that your "most delicate" item breaks, or gives you an opportunity to barter items for trade goods but tells you that you can't trade anything which is "useless", and I have absolutely no idea how I am supposed to assess that sort of thing - what's more delicate, a glass vial or an ancient, crumbling parchment? What about everyday objects that are useful as spell components - useless or not useless? (Incidentally, why can't I be assumed to have some sand or pebbles on me? It's not like they're especially rare - what, was my mission so important that I couldn't scrape together the easiest of all spell components to obtain before I headed out?) It strikes me that Steve has written a lot of this book in the mindset of a GM running a tabletop RPG, in which such questions can be resolved through discussion between the players and the referee, and hasn't given a lot of thought as to how this sort of thing would translate to a gamebook format, which is quite uncharacteristic for him.

Third Run

Skill: 8
Stamina: 19
Luck: 8 (with a +1 stat boost)

This time I was fed up of dying a lot so I stuck to the safest routes I was aware of, even though without exploring off the beaten path I'm not likely to track down all the Serpents. As the game progressed I realised the distinction between the structure of this book and The Shamutanti Hills: the Baklands are an almost uninhabited wilderness, so this time the mandatory waypoints between the nonlinear segments of the adventure do not consist of settlements, but instead are transitions between terrain features; first you're travelling across the steppes, then you go through a forest, and then you get to the lake.

At which point I got stuck because I didn't find out earlier on how to call the ferryman, and there's no other way to proceed. Harsh!

Fourth Run

Skill: 10
Stamina: 20
Luck: 10 (with a +1 stat boost)

So, having been told in no uncertain terms that I needed to explore more, I proceeded to do so, and I'm glad I did because I encountered the Temple of Throff, in which the Temple threatens to fall on your head if you read the wrong hieroglyphics unless you can remember the name of the deity the Temple is dedicated to and say it three times; in this case Jackson realises that he has absolutely no idea how to stop people cheating at this point, and so warns the reader that "you are on your honour" not to cheat, which sounds like an invitation to cheat to me. It's also the place where just talking to some guy gives you the Yellow Plague, which isn't nearly as scary as it sounds because it only causes 3 points of Stamina damage per day and is curable once you find a suitable medicinal potion.

I also noticed a bug during this run: there's one paragraph when you're fighting the Earth Serpent where it demands a skill test but doesn't explain what you're meant to do if you fail it.

Finally, I was able to get through, but I had only defeated four of the Serpents, so the Archmage and his minions will be warned when I get to the Fortress! At least, though, I remembered that, because I hadn't used my prayer to Libra, I could just boost all of my stats back to their maxima. That'll help a lot - my Stamina was down to 2 at this point!

The Crown of Kings


Gear (as of the end of Khare: Cityport of Traps)

I've got my sword, a backpack, 1 provision, noseplugs, a skullcap, a gold-backed mirror, a green-haired wig, a tinderbox, the Serpent Ring, the Galehorn, a Hewing Axe, a potion from Dintainta (AKA The Sham), a whistle that summons the ferryman from the previous book, and a bunch of good advice from the Seven Serpents: don't use a blood candle to light your way in the room of night, be careful that the Archmage is not as he seems, don't give any gold to Valignya, and don't eat anything Throg offers you.

First Run

Skill: 10
Stamina: 20
Luck: 10 (with a +1 stat boost)

Before I started this run, I had a look to see what benefit killing all the Seven Serpents would have had in this adventure, and it seems pretty fun: whenever you encounter someone in this book who refers to you as "the Analander" - indicating that they have foreknowledge of your arrival - you're directed to go to the entry 40 paragraphs back for an alternate version of the encounter where they aren't expecting you. This seems pretty decent - shame I won't be able to make use of it while paying this book.

As befits the climax of the series, the opening of the book is wonderfully atmospheric, as, within sight of the Fortress, you have to choose which of three caves you are going to dive into to shelter overnight from a punishing storm, in one final, last-ditch attempt by Steve to make the provisions and sleep rules relevant. Unfortunately, I didn't get very far in this run because I was killed whilst searching a home of the Birdmen who stole the crown in the introductory story in the first book; I probably should have guessed they were around, but I assumed that (as normal) I would have some hope of fighting them when I encountered them. Clearly, the gloves are off this time.

Second Run

Skill: 6
Stamina: 21
Luck: 12 (with a +1 stat boost)

I got past the nest, evaded a birdman, and strolled over the mystical Groaning Bridge. Which collapsed and killed me. Ooops.

This might take a while.

Third Run

Skill: 10
Stamina: 23
Luck: 13 (with a +1 stat boost)

I have brilliant stats, watch me die arbitrarily and waste them!

Trying the one cave I hadn't explored so far at the start of the run, I found a parchment which I could show off to people when encountering them to see if they can translate it. A couple of encounters later, a wise old She-Satyr of the mountains took it off me in exchange for a groaning heap of rare spell items. She also gave me important intelligence about the Throben Doors, four sets of heavy double doors that are magically sealed and protect the Archmage, so to get at him and the Crown of Kings I would need to get past them. In other words, the secret to completing this gamebook is working out how to defeat a quartet of villainous doors. Lastly, she told me how to summon a helpful person at the Groaning Bridge.

Hmmm, this friend at the Groaning Bridge is also extremely helpful - they give you an earful of good advice, and some delicious and helpful potions. It seems that if you make the right choices in the approach to Mampang Fortress it makes the Fortress itself a lot easier. I'm surprised by the number of spell components available this early on, but I suppose people who don't play the previous adventures but still want to play a spellcaster need an opportunity to get some of the items.

At the same time, there's lots of little ways in which your exploits in the earlier parts of the story can help or hinder you; you can get easy access to the best cave to sleep in if you have a Green-Haired Wig (which lets you cast the talking-to-monsters spell), and you lose out on a lot of advice if you lose your faith in the Goddess Libra in a previous book.

Having infiltrated the Mampang Fortress, I encountered some Black Elves that made fun of my skin colour, which irked me until I realised that my skin colour isn't actually specified in the text so it doesn't matter what ethnicity I assume my adventuring persona to be, the Black Elves are still racist idiots. This, and the fact that I could get out of the situation by making racist jokes, makes me wonder whether the whole affair was a dig at TSR's woeful creative decisions concerning the skin colour of their own Dark Elves, although there are references to "black-skinned chaotics" elsewhere so maybe I am giving Jackson a bit too much credit here.

Aside from that, I spent much of this run fighting; there's a lot more violence in this episode, although mainly against low-Skill functionaries. I didn't die through fighting but from being duped, however; I tried to help a guy who was stuck in a pillory, he decided the best way to get away was to knock me out and put me in the pillory in his place. Oh well, at least I'm making progress.

Fourth Run

Skill: 10
Stamina: 17
Luck: 13 (with a +1 stat boost)

For the sake of speeding things up, I decided that this would be the last run where I vary my route up to the Groaning Bridge, since I think I've found pretty much the perfect way through the earlier stages of the book - and there are no Skill or Luck tests along the way and no fighting, so there's no possible way it can go wrong. Therefore, I will henceforth regard the Groaning Bridge as a save point.

As I progressed through Mampang yet again, I was struck by how rich the plot of the series had become by this point - and you can get even more little snippets of plot if you've played the previous books. For example, the hermit you meet at the beginning of The Seven Serpents appears to you at one point to give you some helpful hints - and to let you know that he's just died from being tortured and left to the elements by the Archmage's goons, and that this visitation is the last recourse left to him at this point. You also get hints throughout the book of the activities of the Samaritans, a secret society of rebel birdmen seeking to overthrow the Archmage. There's a palpable sense that you're walking into a real, busy location with its own politics and events. The overall impression is that this is Citadel of Chaos done right.

I died due to not knowing the password for the second Throben Door, but it doesn't matter: I'm having too much fun.

Fifth Run

Skill: 8
Stamina: 19
Luck: 10 (with a +2 stat boost)
Gear Earned Up to Groaning Bridge: Stone dust, 3 pebbles, firewater, brass pendulum, sun jewel, crystal orb, pearl ring, orange powder, medicinal potion, and holy water.

This time I was victorious, thanks in part to making contact with the Samaritans. I got to the Archmage and tried to talk him into giving me the crown, only to get imprisoned with that fucking minimite Jann from the first book, the spell-suppressing piece of shit. The little bastard told me how to use the most powerful and mysterious spell in the spellbook, which I did, overriding his magic field and killing him - good riddance! - and zapping back in time to where I first encountered the Archmage (when he was in disguise, as Jann revealed to me). I immediately blasted him with the magical equivalent of a sawn-off shotgun, grabbed the crown, and called in an aerial evacuation from the Samaritans.

The long sought-after paragraph 800 didn't disappoint either; some Fighting Fantasy books are happy to say "You won, yay", but the end of The Crown of Kings makes you feel like a God amongst men, which is only appropriate given the level of commitment it takes to get there.

The Canary Says


The wonderful thing about the Sorcery! series is the sheer versatility of it - you can play it as a wizard or as a warrior, as individual gamebooks, or as one continuous series - but at the same time I do wonder whether every single way you can approach the series is equally valid. Warriors don't get much love - there are very few warrior-specific options out there - and I think it's only worth trying to play the series as a fighter if you have a truly exceptional Skill score - someone with Skill 12 could storm Sorcery!, whereas I think a fighter with a Skill of 7 would be far less likely to survive than a wizard with a skill as low as 5. Furthermore, you get so much more out of the series if you play it as a series I'm not sure there's much playing the books as individual gamebooks. For starters, the first three books don't really provide much closure at the end, so there's no point playing them if you're not going to play the rest. Furthermore, playing the previous books opens up a vast number of alternative routes to the end, and in Fighting Fantasy the more you can do the better.

At the same time, I think Sorcery! pushes the boundaries of what is possible with the gamebook format, and in some instances steps over the line. There are a number of encounters where it would make perfect sense to use a particular spell, but you're not given the option (considering that there is a "fall slowly and safely to the ground" spell, there is no reason you should ever die of falling down somewhere, for example), a problem which suggests, again, that there are some cases where Jackson was thinking more like a referee running a tabletop game than someone designing a gamebook. Arguably, this is a problem with all Fighting Fantasy books, but where it crops up in Sorcery! it's all the more apparent precisely because the magic system is so versatile. This is worst in The Seven Serpents, easily the most frustrating and least interesting book in the sequence, but happens occasionally throughout.

But I would never have seen those flaws in the first place if Sorcery! hadn't, in most other respects, succeeded in meeting its lofty ambitions. Aside from these quibbles, and the unfortunate Black Elves incident in The Crown of Kings (and I'm still not sure that Jackson wasn't just being offensive there), it's a towering achievement, easily the best thing that Fighting Fantasy had produced so far. I wouldn't suggest that newcomers to the series tackle Sorcery! first, and I would strongly recommend playing as a wizard and playing the books in sequence, taking the end of each book as a "save point", but with those qualifiers it's incredible. Given the sheer amount of time it convinced me to happily plunge into it, and considering that I was not even slightly bored at any point in the process, Sorcery! easily qualifies for the Axis of Awesome.

As always, it's important to keep track of where the various Fighting Fantasy gamebooks fall in terms of quality, so here is the updated Smiley Scale:

----------------------------------------
Sorcery!* :D (Sheer delight)
|
Island of the Lizard King |
|
City of Thieves |
----------------------------------------
The Warlock of Firetop Mountain :) (Recommended)
|
Forest of Doom |
----------------------------------------
Citadel of Chaos :S (Collectors only)
----------------------------------------
Starship Traveller :( (Downright bad)
----------------------------------------
Deathtrap Dungeon >:( (Pissed me off)
----------------------------------------
Scorpion Swamp D: (OH GOD WHY)
----------------------------------------

* Assuming that:
- you play it as a wizard
- play the books in sequence
- and take then end of each book as a "save point".

Tune in next time as I get back to the core Fighting Fantasy series.
~

bookmark this with - facebook - delicious - digg - stumbleupon - reddit

~
Comments (go to latest)
Andy G at 10:18 on 2009-06-29
I always wanted to read these when I was younger ... perhaps I will now.

Have you ever come across the Lone Wolf series? You get to play one character through 20 books, accumuating new equipment and skills as you go. Technically speaking, the gameplay isn't as inventive as the Fighting Fantasy can sometimes be (and it's also occasionally a bit broken), but I love them for the sheer scale and coolness of it all (you're a warrior monk with psychic powers). They're available online at http://www.projectaon.org/en/Main/Home. One day I will learn how to format links properly in HTML.
Arthur B at 13:43 on 2009-06-29
I was aware of Lone Wolf, but my local library only had a handful of the later books, and I never got around to getting the earlier ones to start working through them.

Handy HTML link tips are available here. Strictly speaking, FB runs on XHTML, but for the purposes of doing the simplest HTML links (which is all you're likely to be doing most of the time) they're nigh-identical.
Arthur B at 13:47 on 2009-06-29
Oh, and speaking of linked gamebook series did anyone ever encountered the Fabled Lands series by Dave Morris? They were a set of gorgeously produced gamebooks which together made a fully interactive world - each book covered a bit of the terrain, and you could wander back and forth across the borders if you wished. There was a fun system of codewords you noted down to denote the fact that you had witnessed a one-off event or had completed a particular quest.

Unfortunately, the series was cancelled before it was finished, meaning that there's no way you can collect and play through the complete game.
Andy G at 13:51 on 2009-06-29
I love Dave Morris – he did the diceless Virtual Reality series too, including the amazing Heart of Ice with five different endings. And the Hero Quest/Knightmare tie-in books I believe, which had very interesting systems (though sadly they were too short to take full advantage of them).
Arthur B at 14:09 on 2009-06-29
Plus he did Dragon Warriors, a tabletop RPG which managed to get published by Corgi when they were cashing in on the gamebook boom. It's recently been republished by Mongoose Publishing in conjunction with Magnum Opus Press, the new project of James Wallis (formerly of Hogshead Publishing, who used to be the licensees for the first edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay).

The British tabletop RPG world is a very very small one.
Shimmin at 19:46 on 2009-06-29
These do sound good. At least you're making up for some of the earlier ones. Incidentally, I think you left a planning paragraph in the final text by mistake, in the fourth run of "The Crown of Kings".
Arthur B at 20:01 on 2009-06-29
Deleted; thanks for that.
Wardog at 09:35 on 2009-07-01
Sorry to, err, lower the tone but what is happenining on the cover of The Seven Serpents. Did you encounter a penis-shouldered monster in the middle of a 3some with 2 dead chicks?
Arthur B at 12:33 on 2009-07-01
I think it's the (extremely helpful) elven sorceress gazing into her crystal ball.

The dicks appear to be the back of her chair. Given that she lives alone in the woods and spends all her time scrying I'm not going to judge her.
http://matthew.wilson.myopenid.com/ at 14:30 on 2009-08-02
At the time, I enjoyed Sorcery much more than the other Fighting Fantasy books. I spent a lot of time trying to find all the Seven Serpents.

Worryingly, I think I can remember at least two of the lines from the poem in Cityport. Maybe even the number which you find inside the poem. That's not right after twenty-something years is it?
Arthur B at 17:38 on 2009-08-02
At the time, I enjoyed Sorcery much more than the other Fighting Fantasy books. I spent a lot of time trying to find all the Seven Serpents.
That is, actually, a virtue of that particular book that I didn't give it enough credit for - you can replay it over and over again to try and kill every single one of the Serpents (giving you a radically different experience in the final volume), or you can just say "Fuck it, I survived, that's good enough" and push on to the next book even if you haven't killed them all. That's an amount of flexibility which is only really possible in something like Sorcery!, and the more I think about it the more impressive it is.
In order to post comments, you need to log in to Ferretbrain or authenticate with OpenID. Don't have an account? See the About Us page for more details.

Show / Hide Comments -- More in June 2009