Deathtraps and Dungeons

Thursday, November 16, 2023

Crypt of the Sorcerer

Background - 

Ian is sitting alone in a cramped cupboard of an office at Puffin HQ.  Instead of his usual typewriter he looks at the green writing on a black background of the primitive computer machine.  The blinking light of the cursor is mocking him.

Ian (Speaking to himself purely so this plot device actually works) "The problem is I can not think of anything else to write.  I mean how much novel ideas can someone come up with?!"

He sighs and rubs his hands on his temples.

Ian "Its just the demand for more books, its insane.  But how is everyone beating them so fast?" 

Realisation dawns on Ian.

Ian "The little bastards, I bet they are cheating.  And it won't be a reroll here or there in combat or for a failed luck test.  Why they are probably even giving themselves stats of 12/24/12 before they even start!"

Ian is now getting visibly furious.

Ian "In fact I bet they keep their grubby little fingers in the pages as bookmarks in case they make a choice they do not like!"

He know picks up the chair and throws it against the wall as it shatters into multiple pieces.  A terrified looking young intern opens the door and peers in.

Intern "Is everything all right sir?"

Ian "Not a Sir yet, but one day!  Yes everything is fine, everything is perfect.  I am going to write a book that is so hard that it is impossible to finish!  Impossible!  That way they will all be stuck on it and I will not have to keep churning out these books!  MWHAHAHAHA!"

The intern backs away slowly and shuts the door.

So its still early 1987 when Crypt of the Sorcerer came out and it is back to Ian Livingston whose once epic output of Fighting Fantasy has slowed a little bit as we have had four books since his last outing with Trial of Champions.  I did get this one from our local library when I was a kid so I have played it before but all I remember from that was that I failed a lot and couldn't even cheat my way through it.  Since then I have read a lot about this book as it is notorious for its difficulty level.  I think there is something like a 2% chance of getting to the final boss and even then the chances of beating him are more remote.  A lot of hate for this book so I will go in accepting I am going to die and try and focus on other things like the story to try and get some enjoyment from it.  Although just imagine if I actually did beat it....I doubt anyone would believe me haha.

Covers - 

Ah the first positive.  I love this cover.  Its so iconic.  Razaak himself looks super creepy with what looks like a malformed head.  His magical red light playing around his hand hints to his powers.

And the dark evil red of the cover is the perfect choice of colour.  And of course screaming skulls and heads flying about out of the crypt behind him.

When I think Fighting Fantasy some covers I think of are synonymous with the series.  For me this is very much one of them.

The Wizard reprint got an updated cover.  Even though its quality is overall better its not quite as good for me.  Razaak looks more like a an undead necromancer (which he may be).  Much more grotesque for sure and pretty cool but looks less like a sorcerer for me.  

The evil shades of red are here but the stripe of blue sky is odd.

Also when I look at it closely it looks like a poor old distressed ugly person running away and trying to swat all the bothersome flies that are clearly chasing them.  Its hard to have good personal hygiene when you are part corpse.

Premise - 

We are hanging out at the pleasant town of Chalice.  It is a safe haven for merchants to rest on their way from Silverton.  Normally a great place to be but today as I look out from my room in the Lion Inn I see a problem.  For three weeks the sky has been dark and menacing.  Worse, there is talk of plague spreading from the East. 

Things take a turn when an Elf comes into town.  He was minding his own business flying on his eagle over the Moonstone Hills when he saw a fissure.  Lots of putrid black vapor was pouring out and the trees in the area were all dead.  Circling for a closer look a withered hand appeared in the gap and shot an energy bolt which killed the eagle.  The elf had to walk all the way to Chalice to tell us the story.

Now at this point I would have asked how bloody big was this withered hand that you saw it from flying overhead on the Eagle from inside a big crevice?  I suspected the Elf's story but I guess they have really keen eyesight.

Luckily I am tight with our old friend, the wizard Yaztromo.  I ride off to his tower and apparently trample all over his herb garden.  He is as cranky as ever but when he sees the grave look on my face he invites me in to tell him the Elf's tale. 

Yaz is not happy with the story, muttering away at those fools.  He explains that one hundred years ago Razaak was apprenticed to a lawful wizard but like Anikan Skywalker he was tempted to the dark side.  After forty years of solitude he graduated as a full blown Necromancer (ah so he was a necromancer).  It was then he announced to all the lords of the lands that they had to acknowledge him as their ruler. 

Yes my tribal chief!

Slight problem with that though, nobody had any idea who Razaak was so they all ignored him.  Razaak spat the dummy at this and unleashed plagues and pestilences across their lands until they accepted him as their ruler.

Many heroes tried to slay Razaak but they rolled terrible stats and all failed.  That was until a person named Kull was randomly sailing his boat across a mist covered lake and saw a skeletal hand holding a sword from the lake.  He grabbed it and discovered he had a blade that could cut through anything.  But there is a twist, it was Razaaks own sword.  You see in order to become a necromancer (as well as live in a cave for forty years) he had to destroy all his weapons.  Unfortunately for him his sword was indestructible so he threw it into a lake.  A disgruntled skeleton had other ideas and held it up above the lake water, apparently for ages, just waiting for someone to come along and take it.

Kull found Razaak and slew him the sword but their was an unfortunate side effect for poor Kull, all his flesh fell off.  Now as a skeleton himself he fled to the lake on the Moonstone Hills where he enjoys sailing his raft.

Razaak's remains were sealed by a lawful wizard who decreed they needed to be sealed for 110 years or Razaak would come back and kill everyone with an undead army.  Yaz concludes that grave robbers must have found the tomb and not knowing what they were doing, unsealed it.  The fools!

He turns to me and says I assume you will be volunteering my services to save the day.  Of course I do.  Yaz says first I have to get the sword and bring it back to him so he can make sure I get to keep my flesh.  He also mentions the need for magic amulets and talismans to protect myself.  Queue up an item hunt.  But he does mention that he is going to get some backup which could be interesting.  

Rest up tonight, I head out in the morning.

Playthrough - 

This is as bog standard as it gets with only skill, stamina and luck.  However we also get told you have no provisions.  And I seem to be missing an equipment list, no sword, backpack or anything.  I hope it explains why in the first paragraph.

Skill - 11

Stamina - 19

Luck - 9

Normally I would be delighted with a skill 11 but I already know I am dead with these stats.  Lets see how long we can keep it going for though!

Yaztromo wakes me up before dawn from a nightmare of undead attacking me.  Twenty minutes later I am outside and ready to ride.  He gives me a healing potion that has enough for five tots (whatever a tot is) and each tot restores four points of stamina.  Ah so these are the substitute for provisions.  It makes more sense for a magic potion to heal wounds rather than eating lots of food.  By nightfall I am at the foot of the hills the Silver River flows out of on the Windward plain.  Oh that reminds me there is a colour map - 

You are here.

The night passes without incident and after a good breakfast I can decide whether to wade the river and go east into the hills or follow the river north into the hills.  Well we are looking for a lake right so it makes sense that the river will lead us there?

The land is getting marshy and the horse finds it difficult going.  I get the option to give up and go east instead but I think that's a double bluff.

Maybe not!

We meet the Harpoon Flies who can shoot there noses as weapons.  Apparently they take a week to grow back.  The poison paralyses the victim and allows the females to lay their eggs in the victims so the maggots have plenty to eat.  Well that's horrifying what skill are they?  Oh wait I have to roll to see how many  needles hit me!  I do not even get to fight!

Thankfully I roll a 2 but I still lose 4 stamina points and have to use a tot of the potion to stop the poison effects.  What a terrible start haha.

I see a cave in the distance, do I want to explore it?  Hell no, I am going to the mountain lake to find the sword, its not going to be in a random dark cave.

The going gets worst and I am forced to cross the river.  I see some smoke in the distance so decide to have a sneaky look at what is causing it.

There be Orcs in these hills!

He is still alive but not for long.  He tells me four Orcs took his gold and food and to watch out for their ambush.  Before he passes he also tells me to check the barrel.  I first drink some of the water and get back one point of stamina.  The barrel does have a false bottom and I am rewarded with quite a haul.  10 gold, a knife, a bottle of holy water and a crystal with a gold chain.  I put it on and it is a crystal of sanity which will help protect me from assaults on my mind.  Handy.  I take his advice to avoid the Orcs.

As I ride on I scan the skies for winged killers and the ground for Orcs, everything seems fine but my horse suddenly rears up but I pass a skill test.  

Its an Ambush!

Not a very good one though as they attack one at a time. I also get an attack strength bonus of 2 for still being on my horse.  The Chamelonites are only skill 7s and 6 so with the horse bonus I easily dispatch them all without taking a hit.

I recall a legend that if I dab their blood on me I get their powers of perfect camouflage once in my life.  But there are terrible side effects.  I feel this is one of the things I need to have so I go for it.  Roll a dice to see the effect.  I roll a 4 and amazingly I have no side effects.  Lets hope this luck holds.

Next set piece is a place called the valley of the bones.  It is as its name suggests, covered in bones.  But a small voice shouts at me to go away.  No chance.  I walk in and the source of the voice starts throwing bones at me.  I shout out that I am no threat and the barrage stops.  Alas he does not know where the lake is, he just makes magic rings out of the bones.  But he is looking for a new knife which he would exchange a magic ring for.  Why good sir, I have just come into possession of a knife.  I hand it over and he gives me a ring to protect from werewolves, just say one two three turn and flee.  Nice!

The next valley has a moss covered rock which seems to have some words on it.  Ok I guess I could take a look.  It has a rhyme on it.  To go beyond the granite door, press the numbers one eight four.  I know a page reference when I see it, that's two now on the list!

We stop at a stream and both me and the horse get some refreshment.  That means 1 stamina point back for me and so far it feels things are going better than expected!

Wait what is this, Goblin riding horses?  Outrageous! 

Yep over the next hill is a Goblin raiding party.  What self respecting horse lets a Goblin ride them?  I can attempt to run or I can charge them.  I know they are four of them but they are still Goblins, should be easy right?  Right?

Yeah they are Goblins alright, Skill 5 and 6.  I easily dispatch them all without getting hit.  For my efforts I  gain 2 gold and a cracked mirror in a silver frame.  I also find some stale cheese which I just chuck away.

I get down the current hill and I can either go up the next one or investigate a nearby wood.  Well I am not going to find the lake in the wood so I decide to pass and continue up the hill.  

Now we appear with lots of flowers but they are all diseased or thorny.  I see a bit of movement and get the option to investigate.  Hmm is it a lake with a sword?  Nope.  I continue on.

I make camp for the night but I am rudely awoken by a pair of giant fire beetles.  Nothing upsets me more than losing sleep.  This is accurately reflected in the combat as I absolutely annihilate them (it helps they were skill 5).  

In the morning I go up the hill and spot a lake no more than two hours ride away.  I head off.

And get immediately attacked by Peter Griffin.

This will be much more of a test as its Skill 10.  Stamina is also 10 so I have to hit it 5 times.  We trade blows but I get the better of him with 13 stamina left.  It tries to fly away but plummets to its death.  I do not see the Barbarian rider get up so I think its prudent to investigate lest she sneaks up behind me.  She is very much dead and I can take her sword if I need for 2 skill points if I do not have one.  I assume if I had lost my sword I would be down 2 skill points (and would never have beaten the Griffin).  Do you want to take her shield.  Yes I do.

Its a magical shield called the Defender, very good at deflecting magical cast lightning.  It also says I can gain 1 skill point.  But I am at my initial skill and it is very specific that it can not exceed my initial score.  This is one of those should be attack strength bonuses that are a bit game breaky for me.  Boo.

As I near the lake I see a small rusted box by a tree.  Do you want to open it?  Why in the world would I want to open this mystery rusted box when I am so close to where I need to be?  I carry on, but it was probably a vital item.

Ah Kull, looking good mate! 

I reach the shore and after a bit of a wait spot Kull bobbing along on his raft.  I guide my horse into the lake near where he is headed and reach out and take Razaak's sword.  Kull lets out a sign of relief and crumbles into the lake.  Sounds like he was getting a bit bored of his peaceful lake boating.  Well we have the sword!  Lets head back to Yaztromo and hope he has got a plan to stop me also becoming a boating skeleton.

Well not so fast, on the way back I run into a centaur who wants a fight, same skill and stamina as the Griffin.  I decide to chug some of the potion first.   Amazingly I beat him without getting hit.  A couple of draws is the best he manages.  Good, serves him right for being a git.  He has a bronze demon talisman around his neck, do you want to put it on.  Of a demon you say, erm no that sounds like a terrible idea that Yaz would no doubt scold me for.

Further on I hear a girls cry for help.  God its bound to be a trap and its not part of the plan but we have to play the part of the hero.  Its the right thing to do.

I really should just leave you.

I cut her down and she introduces herself as Jella, a half elf who is an apprentice to the wizard Covax of Zengis.  She was searching for herbs but fell into a Goblin trap.  They took everything but a tin of healing powder and she offers me some in thanks.  I decide to take some with my logic being this would be a really convoluted trap.  Its legit though and I can roll a dice and add 2 to the total which is how much stamina I get back.  Well that is back to max!  She warns me of some boulder beasts and we part ways.

Next I arrive at a valley and I am told I am relieved not to be going up and down hills anymore.  Except its blocked by a Hill Giant who demands I pay him 5 gold or he will start throwing boulders at me from the ominous looking pile next to him.  I decide to comply and not risk it and give him the gold and he lets me trundle on.

As night falls I look for a place to make camp.  I spot a fire on the hill and that sounds like a better option than sleeping in the boulders (Jella did war me about boulder beasts after all).  I make my way up and I am threatened to go no further as there is an arrow trained on me.  The voice in the dark asks if I am lawful or chaotic.  Well I am lawful and pretty sure chaotic would have already shot me so I tell the truth.

You had me at roast duck.

He introduces himself as Symm, a tracker.  He is quite confident and says there is nothing he can't shoot or track. We talk and he asks what I am doing.  Well Symm I just picked up a sword from a boating skeleton to go and kill a sorcerer who may or may not be causing some black clouds to ruin the weather.  Symm decides to join me in my quest and I immediately start to have Mungo flashbacks.  

Having a guide is very useful as he spots two hillmen waiting in ambush.  We pretend not to notice them and easily avoid their arrows before getting into combat.  I dispatch my assailant with ease.    I fully expect Symm to be dead, but he is not!  He even collects 8 arrows from the hillmens quiver.

We stay the next night in an abandoned hut and amazingly nothing happens.  The next day we reach the tower but all is not well.  The herb garden is choked by thorns and Yaz is not answering the bell.  A crow flies down and delivers a note.  It says sorry I can not be there to meet you but I am still making preparations.  Ride east to a wooden hut at the edge of Darkwood Forrest to find me.  We mount up and head out.  I better not end up having to play Forest of Doom here.  As we travel a voice shouts out asking if we are looking for Yaztromo as they know where he is.  Sounds oddly specific to know what we are doing so I head over.

It is a forest spirit called Suma.  He tells me that Yaz has been kidnapped by Razaak's forces and is going to be sacrificed.   In fact the hut is a trap.  Ride North into the forest from here to save him.  He can help us one more time and his number is 11.  Ok this guy is a goodie as he has a hidden reference.  I trust him and instead of heading to the hut I ride north.

Either Yas is in trouble or I have just walked in on something.  Hope he has a safe word.

Yas shouts out he is delighted to see me and tells me to use Razaak's sword against the Demon Spawn.  I am quite shocked to find he is only Skill 6, Stamina 6.  The Centaur was loads tougher.  Maybe its reflects the power of the sword I am now using.  Or to reflect the help I am getting from Symm.  It still gets the first hit in before I dispatch it.  

We release Yaz who says his magic did not work against the demon which shows how strong Razaak is.  He seems to acknowledge Symm which makes me think I must have been forced to meet him at some stage.  We fill him in on what we have been up to and head back to the tower.  He tells us that not only must you use the sword against Razaak but we need to also pierce his heart with the horn of a Gargantis.  A near mythical creature that can only be defeated with magic.  Yaz is also concerned by the no show of his friend Budron who knows the location of the graveyard of Razaaks father.  He seems to think it might be of some importance.  I get the option of heading out now or staying the night in the tower to hope Budron turns up.  Sleep is always the right choice.

I get a greats night sleep and get fed so Stamina is back to maximum and he even refills the magic potion.  Budron does not turn up though as Yaz fears the worst.  He says to find the graveyard first and then head to Stonebridge and ask for Borri.  We ride off.

The first option we get next is we see a leather sack hanging on a tree that we could cut down.  No, why would we do that?  Probably has Budron's severed head in it.

I need to decide if the graveyard is at Mirewater or Stonebridge.  Well Borri is at Stonebridge so I guess we have to head to Mirewater first.  There is no sign so far so I get the option to continue into the village, head to Stonebridge, or go and have a look at this mysterious wood.  Well why else would the wood suddenly be an option.

Right enough we find a graveyard in the forest.  I am asked if I am wearing a skull ring? Nope.  After some searching we find Razaak's father Tamal's gravestone.  It reads - 

Although I lie here. I am not yet done, The dark power continues, my soul is my son.  Tamal.  Died in this world aged 108 years.

I know a page reference when I see it!  We ride for Stonebridge and arrive at dark, I can camp outside or head in.  I see no reason to wait so we tell the guards we are looking for Borri.  Everyone is really friendly when they find out who we are.  I get fed again, a finesleep in the hay and breakfast in the morning.  This is great!

Borri has only gone and invented the hot air balloon!

Myself, Borri and Symm take to the skies and fly over Darkwood forest.  But we need to find the Gargantis, and I have no idea where to go.  The options are the Forest of Spiders, Western Flatlands or the Plain of Bronze.  Well the Forest was where the vapors were found in Creature of Havoc so won't be there.  I decide to head to the Plain of Bronze.

Straight into a whirlwind which forces Borri to land the balloon.  We make an improvised shelter and luckily it passes us by (after making a luck test).  Myself and Symm go off to look for horses and we find a caravan on the way.  Alas they have no pack animals to spare to carry the balloon but we can ride with them for 9 gold.  Hmm I only have 7.  Can we leave Borri?

We have no luck finding any horses so head back to the balloon in a despondent mood.  There is no sign of Borri so we get our swords out.  Borri then jumps out with a loaded crossbow and I have a laugh at him saying don't be daft.  And he fires a bolt through my neck killing me instantly.  Alas with my death I miss the fight to the death between him and Symm.  Turns out Borri had been eating some of the local fruit, called mad mad berries.

Notable Encounters - 

A lot of bad can happen quite quickly in Crypt of the Sorcerer.   I mean in this example you see some rustling in a bush and go to investigate and my word you are in trouble.  You see they are black fairies about and they automatically capture you, no combat or tests involved.  They then take every single one of your possessions including your healing potion and sword for a -2 skill penalty.  AND THATS THE BETTER OPTION!  Its just a lucky dice roll, the other one is instant death.   

Thieving B*stards! 

I met Symm and Borri in my playthrough as companions (and Borri killed me, somewhere Mungo is laughing) but they have both been done much better than in previous books (except maybe Grog).  They interact with you and also offer advice at different stages.  It gives them a personality and for the first time it really does not feel you are not on your own in this adventure.  Razaak's lair even has duplicates to take into account if you are alone or with the guys which is really well done.  Except if you are with them you are already dead.

I think my favourite encounter though is when a Red Dragon attacks your balloon.  Now you obviously have no chance of winning this battle and right enough you are sent flying into the air.  But if you call on Sima for help he magically appears and next thing you know you and the guys are riding the dragon and flying to your destination in style! 

An upgrade on your balloon!

The tunnels in the flatlands where the Gargantis lives is interesting.  Zombie miners rub shoulders with Ice Ghosts.  It is a mini dungeon crawl but not one where you are in any danger of getting lost.  The best bit is the poor Cave Troll though - 

Just minding his own business collecting bones.

If jumping him and killing him was not enough you then rifle through all his stuff.  All the bones and box with a spider though is a cover.  Borri tips the cart and he has a secret box which contains a book!  The troll has the equivalent of the Guinness book of world records.  Pay attention to the hobbit ear eating record, there will be a quiz later.

And here is the quizmaster himself, Ungoth -

The Noel Edmonds of Allansia.

My word he has a lot of questions.  Hope you have been paying attention, like when Borri was rambling on about the cost of a hammer in Port Blacksand.  What is the current troll record for eating hobbit ears?  What number do the Zombies get tattooed and how old was Razaaks old man when he died?   I get the first question as it relates to your cover story of buying weapons at Port Blacksand for Razaak, but the rest?  How are your regular evil guys meant to know the troll record?  What happens if you get it wrong by 1 as you only have last years information?  Dead thats what.  Does not make any sense.  But thats ok as if you get past that you have to use the combination of the door to the crypt which is much more obviously marked on a moss covered stone hundreds of miles away, yeah that makes much more sense......  

Artwork - 

John Sibbick debuts as the illustrator, although he did do the Masks of Mayhem cover which I thought was a bit rubbish.  Now I do not know if its because the art in the last entry, Beneath Nightmare Castle, was so bad, but I am loving the art here.  In fact its some of the best I have seen in the series since Deathtrap Dungeon.  It really is excellent and what I imagine when I think Fighting Fantasy.

From my playthrough my meeting with Kull and Symm are my favourites. The Demon Spawn is also excellent, as are a lot of the creature depictions that are in the menagerie section.  And Razaak himself is top notch.  Love it!

Domestic trouble in the Demon household as Mr Demon has finally had enough of Mrs Demons nagging and has stormed out as she pleads with him not to leave.

Ah yes Yaz, of course its you inside the crypt lair.  Not an illusion at all!

Love this one as it gives a proper feel of being up in the balloon.

But this is my number 1!  The best depiction of Skeletons that you will see anywhere.  Well at least anywhere in Fighting Fantasy in the first 26 books.

But I did find one -

The Clay Golem looks terrible and it does not even have a picture frame and zero background.  Its so jarring that I thought it had been done by another illustrator.

Big Bad  -

Dont let him touch you with his strong hand.

If anyone got the scary movie reference please award yourself a point.  As a big bad he is right up there with one of the best.  I mean the entire of Allansia is at stake here.  Razzak likes to think big!  He gets a good bit of backstory depicting his growth in power but we never find out why he went to the dark side other than a lust for power.  What I do love is that he has already been defeated before and his resurrection has played out the way it has.  But best of all is you feel his presence throughout your  journey.  From having to get his sword from Kull reminding you of his past to all his current machinations such as kidnapping Yaztromo.  It does not feel like he is just waiting in his crypt for you to turn up.

I would have Razaak as my top bad guy so far, well close to Balthus Dire, but for one thing.  In gameplay terms he is nigh on unbeatable.  Skill 12 Stamina 20 with no way to reduce it.  This means at the very best you can hope for is straight roll offs.  And even if you are Skill 12 at the start the chances of still being at that level when you get to them are not great.  But here is the kicker, if he wins two combats in a row you are instant kill as he gets his creepy hand on you and drains your life, turning you into a zombie.  Nobody is legitimately winning that. 

Menagerie - 

You know considering how many books have come before we are still seeing some new creatures.  To be honest this one has a mix of fantasy staples like Orcs, Trolls, Centaurs, Dwarfs etc but supplemented with ones with twists such as Ice Ghosts, various demons and of course the Gargantis.  I think Ian does a really good job here with a nice variety and I feel like I am in a living, breathing fantasy world.

Dorogar are half trolls, half orc which we have seen before.  Maybe some lonely nights in the mines...

The Gargantis is a great monster, and you need his horn to kill Razaak.  He is a beast at Skill 12 as he should be.  But there is a non combat option to beat him, even if it its very, very convoluted and unlikely.   

I really like the Ice Ghosts, but they are a non combat option, just avoid being touched by them.

At the other end of the heat spectrum you have the Lava Demons.  

I should explain that this Orc is jumping out of a tree.  Always good to see some classic monsters though.  Does not have to be new and unique every time.

The Rad Hulks protect a treasure chest with a vital shield.  Everything is vital in this book.

This Rad Hulk had a great run as WWF Champion in the 80s.

Got Wood?  This guy has it in abundance!

Entertaining Deaths - 

Harpoon flies paralysing you and laying their eggs on you.  It will be several days before you die a revolting death.

Running away from a Rad Hulk, it throws a boulder and knocks you out and then snaps your neck.

Falling off your horse after a Chameleonite ambush, you bang your head and are bound and robbed and left for vultures, Allansia is doomed.

Getting your sword stuck in a clay golem, he throttles you.

Being eaten by a giant pitcher plant, it dissolves you slowly in its digestive juices.

Having a sleep next to some boulders, its a boulder beast and it roles over and crushes you.

Trying to land a hot air balloon in a forest and falling out.

Being pulled out of a balloon by a hobgoblin.

A red dragon destroying your balloon (balloon riding in Allansia is very dangerous).

Pouring some water on sludge, a chemical reaction poisons you.

Putting on a death mask of Agran, it forces you to sacrifice yourself, you turn to dust after stabbing yourself with Razaaks sword.

The Gargantis uses a mental attack and you and your friends fight.  You kill both of them before jumping into the pit and being easily eaten.

Trying to sneak up on the Gargantis by lowering yourself on a rope into its pit from above.  It just walks up and eats you.

Accidently being transported to the plane of evil, by walking down a non descript tunnel.

Honestly I think the best death was the one I ended up having with Borri going loopy after eating the mad mad berries.  But since I already came across that one I will go for - 

After going through all that and by some miracle beating Razaak, checking your stamina and finding its less than 6 and being too tired to escape the collapsing crypt.

Pete's Corner - 

How come I can put on a giants copper ring?  Am I also a giant?

Final Thoughts - 

Well that was certainly something.  As I was playing through I could not understand the hate for this books difficulty as I found it all pretty standard and the fighting easy enough.  But after I mapped it and looking at how extremely narrow the correct path is, wow.

But as usual lets start with the positives, and there are plenty.  The story is excellent.  Ian gets the background section spot on yet again.  Just enough fluff and I enjoyed the back story of Razaak being defeated previously and the fate of Kull.  But the story keeps going throughout the book.  The quest to retrieve the sword and the start is the more traditional Fighting Fantasy, but after that meeting fleshed out companions in Symm and Borri, the hot air balloon ride, saving Yaztromo from being sacrificed.  It feels like an overarching story and is almost like a movie.

This comes at a cost though.  In order to tell the story like this it is a very linear adventure.  The variety of choices is an illusion.  Which of these 3 locations do you want to go to next?  Well 2 will lead to death very quickly.  It is an interesting change but for a gamebook you need a variety of choice.  In fact the true path requires so, so many items to pick up and information to find that there is no room for error.  Now I was happy with that in Deathtrap Dungeon as it fit the theme of the book.  Here though I feel it is a bit ridiculous.  I would have had multiple paths featuring different items that changes the way the final battle could go.  

I understand though to do that you would have to sacrifice story and maybe lose the companions, both of whom are a great addition so it is a very difficult balancing act.  

Other positives are Razaak himself, what a great villain.  At least in storyline terms.  His menace pervades the book at all times.  And the last hero that killed him became a skeleton doomed to sail the lake holding Razaaks sword!  He looks suitably evil and deformed but once you have defected all his magic attacks with all your cacophony of random items he should not be a close combat ninja!  I am all for a special ability with his wonky hand but not a game breaker as this fight is.

I can not praise the artwork enough in this book.  As I said in that section it is some of the best I have seen in a while.  It really adds to the encounters and John Sibbick should be applauded.  I really hope he has done more in the series.  Those graveyard skeletons and Razaak himself are top tier.

So great story, great art, good companions, must be great yes?  Nope.  Lets talk about the elephant in the room.  The difficulty.  This book is impossible.  Even with the maximum statistics you are very early at the mercy of a random dice roll.  Little did I know those Harpoon Flies can kill you.  I do not agree with a game based on stats that you have to roll a random dice that can lead to instant death.  It is unavoidable as well, you must go this way.  The shopping list is quite something as well.  I will try and recap here but I might miss something.  All these are a must (if you want to avoid a fight with the Gargantis) - 

Crystal of Sanity - of course its in a hidden barrel owned by a recently dead miner.

Chameleonite Blood  - Which comes with another random dice roll that can lead to a -2 skill penalty.

Skull Ring - Which involves you being a dick and killing the bonekeeper which is very out of character, so much so that the book hits you with -3 luck!  This makes no sense.

Examine the random rock to get the door code.  This really makes no sense.

Part of a Silver Rod from a Wood Demons mulch.

Scroll to tell you where the Gargantis lives (not necessary as you could get a lucky guess).

The Defender Shield form the dead body of a women on a Griffin who randomly attacks you.  

Gold ring with a large jewel.  Found randomly by opening a rusty box and taking a doll out, activating the clay golem and then beating him.  Why is it in such a random place?

Razaaks Sword.  Obviously.

Globe that makes you immune to fire.  In the Giants cave so you have to kill him and again he has a random dice roll (no skill test) that can kill you outright.

A faded parchment.  

Sumas help.

Tamals age from the gravestone.

Second part of a Silver Rod found in the empty grave of an attacking skeleton.  It combines to give you the rod of paralysis. 

Bronze Key from some Dorogar in the mines.

The number tattooed on the Zombie miners.

Roll a die again, 1-5 lose 1 skill point from an Iron Eater (unavoidable).

Find the trolls book and take note of the hobbit ear eating record.

Find out the price of a hammer in Port Blacksand.

Get your faded parchment translated by an old man.

A zombies identity tag.

But DO NOT pick up a demon talisman on your way or that kills you late on.

And this is all before you get to a skill 12, stamina 20 final fight where if he wins two combats in a row you are instantly dead.  I am sorry but this book is broken.  So many penalties and chances of instant death by a mere dice roll.  The rest of the enemies are ok, you probably wont die in combat as they are all reasonable.  There are a lot of false trails which kill you.  And I can even get over the tight path and shopping list if you had lots of playthroughs.  But dying through no fault of your own off a random dice roll is poor and you will not beat Razaak when you get to him.

This is disappointing not just from the author but especially from the editors who should have picked this up.  Unless they did it on purpose.  And maybe they did to prove a point.  But the biggest shame is that this would have been such a great book if it had been balanced correctly and maybe had a few less necessary items.  I was really enjoying it in my playthrough after all.

Ian Livingston here has written a great book, but a terrible gamebook.

Score -  5 out of 10.

Monday, November 6, 2023

Beneath Nightmare Castle

Its the 1986 Christmas party at Puffin HQ.  Everybody is having a great time when Philippa gets up on the stage and starts to tap a spoon on the side of a wine glass.  The high pitched chimes ring through the room and the gradual murmur and hubbub dies down to silence.

Philippa "As you all know we have had another great year with Fighting Fantasy, you should all be very proud.  But we can not rest on our laurels, we must change with the times or else we risk going stagnant."

She turns to address Ian.

Philippa "Ian, I made you a promise.  If Steve did another fantasy book he could keep his name on the cover.  Well what do you think about this?"

She then pulls a cord which causes a black curtain to fall away revealing a giant version of the Dragon Steve Jackson and Ian Livingston presents logo."

Philippa "This will be proudly front and centre on all our books going forward!"

Ian starts sobbing as sycophants pat his back and congratulate him.

Nobody can really here the grumbling coming from the other authors as they mumble under their breath at the unfairness of it all.

Or the random comment of "But I liked the green zigzag...."

Later in the night Philippa pulls Ian aside.  

Philippa "Look this is all great and everything but it wont work unless we get more books.  You let Steve go yes?"

Ian "Yes, I released him back into the wilds, he is lost to us now."

Philippa "Some of the secret projects are still not ready, have you got any ideas on what we can do in the new year?"

Ian "Actually I do know someone, used to work at Games Workshop with me.  I could ask him."

Philippa "Why have you not asked him before?"

Ian "Well.....he is a bit unusual."

Fast forward to the new year of 1987.  Its a cold stormy night.  Ian makes his way up a path covered in weeds.  He reaches a metal gate with the emblazoned initials of PDE.  Not much can be seen in the pitch black of night but a stray flash of lighting briefly illuminates the scene, showing a massive castle straight out of a Hammer Horror movie.  Ian opens the gate which screeches loudly on the hinges as he makes his way into the grounds.

The scene changes to a warmly lit study, a fireplace is flickering away as two men sit in highbacked chairs facing it.  A table is between them with a decanter of alcohol and two glasses. Ian is one of them.

Ian "So you will do it?"

Peter Darvil-Evans "Yes I dare say I can."

Ian "Have you got an idea in mind."

Peter Darvil-Evans "Oh yes, but do not worry yourself with such trivial details Ian my friend, I will have the manuscript to you by the end of this month."

Ian looking a bit more nervous "And the matter of payment?"

The view of the scene changes to look directly at Peter, his tongue licks over his long fanged teeth.  He has a deathly white complexion and dresses like a 17th centaury noble.  

Peter Darvil-Evans "Just the usual Ian my dear boy.  The fairest lad and lady of age from the village down yonder."

Beneath Nightmare Castle came out in February 1987 and has a couple of firsts.  It was the first book to be released without the green zigzag version and I believe the debut of the dragon.  Its also the debut of a new author, Peter Darvil-Evans.  I am always excited by a new name as they tend to always bring something different.  Plus a new illustrator, Dave Evans, I remember seeing this one when I was a kid, I think my mate had it but I myself have never played it before so going in completely blind.

Covers - 

Well I say covers, there has only ever been this cover for Beneath Nightmare Castle.  Not much to actually say about it.  I do really like the moonlit background and the shadow of what I assume is the titular castle in the background.  The lady looks scary enough with her armour and long jabby fingernails.  The most terrifying thing though is her terrible fringe haircut.  In good news the long spiky fingernails did not hamper her ability to do her eyeshadow.

Premise - 

I am a skilled and hardy adventurer but my last escapade was not very successful (you are telling me, I am dead in the mines of Zharradan Marr) and I have no food and little coin.  I am so looking forward to visiting my old comrade in arms, Baron Tholdur, that I walk straight into a trap.  You see we start this adventure dangling in a net from a tree. slowly spinning around.  

You see I sound like I am not very good adventurer (very realistic as my previous adventures will testify to) and was so looking forward to a soft and warm bed that when I saw the town of Neuburg I got all excited and missed the suspect rustling bush, the strange bird call and the big net trap in a tree and blundered straight into it.

My pal the Baron is the Margrave of Neuburg Keep and we fought together at the Battle of Helm Hill to defeat the southerners.  The same southerners who have just captured me.  They hit me in the back of the head and I lose consciousness.

Very short and sweet, which is quite a change from the short story intro of Creature of Havoc.

Playthrough - 

As well as the usual Skill, Stamina and Luck we have a new stat to roll for.  It is called Willpower which acts identically to luck in that you have to test against it.  Except if you fail a willpower test when its sitting at 5 or less it is an instant fail.  So, it is representing your ability to stay sane with all the horrors you will witness so pretty much the same mechanic as Fear in House of Hell.  I do like it as it will force you to think really carefully before doing something.  Is this was an Ian Livingston book I would be opening every door possible knowing that I had to.

One thing I have noticed reading the instructions is that if you do have food or provisions you may only eat one meal at a time, even if you have more.  This is quite a good way to stop the ridiculous situation of eating 5 meals at once to restore your stamina, when we all know eating 5 meals at once will reduce your stamina and put you in a food coma.  Although it could lead to just eating in multiple paragraphs.

We start with hew-haw.  It says you trudge down from the hills with only your sword, armour, backpack, no food and little money.  The fact you also start captured as well might make this the most despondent start position ever.  

Skill - 10

Stamina - 19 

Luck - 11

Willpower - 12

Oh wow a max roll for Willpower, throw all the crazy horror stuff at me that you can, ill just laugh it off.  Also pretty lucky and average Skill and Stamina so I will take that.

Interestingly no first page illustration, do not agree with that as I like how it sets the mood.  Anyway, I wake up with a sore head.  In fact it says I feel like a persistent Dwarf blacksmith is using my head for an anvil.  Yep that sounds familiar.  My hands and feet are bound and I am blindfolded.  After some time passes I hear a voice whisper "My friend!  Hush! Say Nothing!  I have a sharp knife, but I dare not stay long.  I cannot enter through this small space, you must pull yourself a little to your right and I will sever your bonds, Hurry!"

Do I shuffle nearer or ignore it.  I decide to shuffle near but I swear if I just get stabbed and its game over....

Luckily It does appear I made the right choice and I am released and in a dark cellar with no sign of my rescuer.  Should I escape up the staircase or search the cellar?  Well I should look for my weapon but I doubt its in here with me so lets try and get out of dodge quickly.  

I appear in a circular stone room.  No guards are around and lo and behold there is all my stuff!  Looking through the slit window I realise I am in a ground floor room of Neuburgs East Gate.  The street is lit up by a red night sky and is very peaceful, but too peaceful.  In fact something is clearly wrong as it is silent, no sign of any of the normal town life.  I have to break down the solid oak door and expecting some test I am surprised that the book asks me to add my Skill and Stamina together (29) and roll a dice 8 (yes eight) times.  

I roll 21 and the door burst open and I decide to leg it into the evening towards the Southern Star Tavern (no choice just told that's where I head) as I remember it as being a nice friendly place in a great location in the market square.

As I make my way through the streets the few people I see are barring doors and shuttering windows.  I have to bang at the door with my sword to get into the Inn.  Good news though, getting a room is easy as I am the only guest.  I decide to speak to the Innkeeper but do I let on I know the baron or not?

I decide that these people are clearly living under oppression, not something my mate the Baron would be doing so something has clearly happened to him.  So I tell my new friend that I am tight with the Baron from back in the day.  He is clearly impressed and cracks out the best booze for me, before stopping mid pour and saying wait a minute how do I know you are telling the truth.  I show him the fancy ring the Baron once gave me which I have just discovered I have on my person (should have been in the equipment list).

The innkeeper turns grave and tells my a tale of the Baron returning from his last trip south in the company of strange swordsman.  They treat the town as their own and now people are going missing and things are roaming the streets at night.  He begs my help of saving the town and his advice is do not under any circumstances go out at night, do not even open the shutters and tomorrow I should find Old Huw at the ruined temple of Oiden.  With that he takes me up to my room for the night.

I give the room a quick search but it checks out.  My character then  completely ignores all advice and opens the shutters!  I get the option to jump down and explore the town or head to the keep.  Hmm no thanks, I trust the innkeeper so I decide to have a good nights sleep.  I mean come on the only build up to this book was how much my dude wanted a bed!

I am woken up during the night by an appalling yelping right by my window.  But it buggers off and I am able to get back to sleep ok.

The next day I get a meal from the Innkeepers wife which restores some stamina but I have not lost any.  After paying for the night I have 5 gold left.   I head out into the grey drizzle and can explore the town or head to the keep.  Well I want to find Old Huw so I head into the town.

I found a map!

I like the flavour of this map.  Well Old Huw is in a ruined Temple so I head to the Temple quarter.  

Erm, interesting sculpting from the people of Neuberg.

I have a wander through the area but as I go further along the temples get older and in worse condition.  I come to the last one and apparently despair of finding anything useful and get the option to turn back.  Nope this is exactly where I should be.  

Right enough its Old Huw who beckons me inside as he says enemies are approaching.  I am told his voice sounds familiar.  Well only person I know is the Baron so maybe its him.

Ah no he is the guy that freed me at the start.  He thinks I am the hero Oiden has prophesied that will save Neuberg but to do this I must first donate something that links me to the town.  So the ring then.  I am told its my most prized possession and get other options to say no or even attack Huw himself.  Well a couple of pages ago I had no idea I had it so I decide to donate.  

Huw is delighted and gives me a meal, still not needed, but then he gives me some advice.  So Huw is really old and helped build the temple which is in fact constructed to hold back the spirit of the evil Xakhaz.  The seals are still in place but the the Keep was also built for the same purpose.  Since the Baron came back with a wizard nobody knew he fears the worst, that Xakhaz has regained physical form.  

But all is not lost, Xakhaz is still vulnerable and you need the Talisman of Loth.  Of course though it has gone missing.  Cernic, the other priest went to the keep last week but has not been seen since.  He is adamant that I should not go to the lower levels until I have the talisman.  Also do not enter by the main gate as it is heavily guarded.  Instead take the side entrance to the right of the main gate.  Now he can give me more info but I must go through the Ordeal first.  Erm ok then...I guess.

So the ordeal is to climb a magic leafless tree, which is very, very tall.  Combine stamina and willpower together (31) then roll eight dice again.  Its close and I roll 29.  I make it to the top of the tree and I get the blessing.  Which is to increase my initial stamina and willpower by 1!

Now Huw sends me on my way, saying somewhere in the town is a fragment of a once potent weapon.  Its probably buried with a curio dealer.  He says avoid the merchants, they are thieves and the riverside as its an unsavoury place.

So I can now visit either of those locations or go to the keep.  I am not sure if I want to risk either area, the weapon probably gives a skill boost but I am happy with a Skill 10.  The issue is finding the Talisman in the keep so I head there.

I go up the path and everyone I see avoids my look and shake their head like I am a madman.  I find an overgrown path that leads to the right of the main entrance so I follow Huws advice and go that way.  I find myself in an overgrown kitchen garden.  There is a gravel path around the side, do you go left or right.  Dammit PDV, that is as bad as a blind T-junction choice!

Always left.  I can keep following the perimeter path or enter a tower by a hole in its wall or head into the centre of the garden.  I am happy to follow the path I am on.  I find a staircase and head up.

I appear in the inner bailey of the castle but can see no obvious way into the keep itself.  Before following the one path I decide to have a rest.  I then get asked if I have a blood lurcher tentacle?  Erm, no I do not.

I think I have made a mistake as I have arrived back at the main entrance to the keep,  Do I want to bang on the door or try and break in.  I am going to try and sneak in.  I do some parkour and swing myself through a window into a small room.  I can go through the opposite door or unbar a locked door and go that way.  Well must be locked for a reason so lets go there.  

I follow a tunnel for a while before I find another staircase going down into the dark, I can take it or stay in the tunnel.  Well I am not going downwards if I can help it until I have the Talisman so I stay in the corridor.  I come to a torture chamber where a man and a women are being held captive.  I get the option on which one to release first.  Well has to be the woman.  

She smiles at me and then of course her mouth keeps opening and a bunch of tentacles come out of the mouth.  I have to take my first willpower test.  I get asked if I have the Talisman of Loth.  Oh dear, maybe it was in the town.  I do not but I am in my first combat of the book.  She is only skill 4 though.  She does not hit me and when I win I flee the room and lock it behind me.

Apparently it is a disease but I pass a luck test and have not caught it.  The way I am going reaches a staircase and this time I have no choice but to head down into the darkness.

I arrive at a T-junction but this one has a well described choice.  One side I see open doors and a lit room which from a distance appears to be food and the other has closed doors with two guards.  Its Nightmare Castle, its not going to be food.  But going straight towards guards is not the smartest idea so I go towards the open room.

Of course the passageway behind me is engulfed in flame.  But I press on and reach the banquet room.  The room is described as being inside a tent.  I can either inspect the food (no thanks) or go back and try and get through the flame (no thanks).  The food is clearly a trap and I still have max stamina so I head back towards the flames.  

Do you want to take a run and a jump or take it slow.  Why would I want to take it slow?  Sounds daft, so daft that its clearly the right answer.  The fire is indeed an illusion as the fire does not give off any heat.  So I calmly walk through it..... and get killed by falling in a pit trap on the other side.

Notable Encounters - 

Well no matter what you think of this book it certainly has notable encounters that's for sure.  One of the first that comes to mind is when you are in the merchants quarter and you are a victim of a cut purse.  She is described as being nine years old and desperate and you fight a round of combat with her before she runs off.  Not too bad so far until you end up in an alley.

Erm Hey Kids, how about you put down the sharp objects, might hurt someone....oh GAWD

Yep a bunch of murderous urchins (books name not mine) appear and there is no talking your way out of it.  You have to kill two waves of them as well, six in total.  If it was not bad enough that you have just killed starving kids you then loot their bodies automatically for 3 gold.  Amazingly this does not trigger a Willpower test!  

You can also get involved in an abusive relationship. 

This Gnomes life is as miserable as his face implies. 

This poor dude gets shouted at by the female Orc chef in the kitchens and then shouted at more by the Orc guard he has to deliver it to.  You could of course just kill him and put him out of his misery and take out the chef as well.  Just dont then go into the kitchen, its instant death.  You can have fun though poisoning the meal and then delivering it to the orc guard to eat.

There is also a magic painting in the lovely waiting area that you can jump into.  But you have to pick where to jump into.  If you go to the lovely view of Neuberg it turns out its a view from the battlements, well more accurately a cage on the battlements that you are trapped in.  Its a long death.  Or you accidently go to a desert city and end up going to a temple with a bunch of worshippers.  You do bump into one of the Barons guards who tells you that you are very likely to be sacrificed as you are an outsider.   There is a correct one though which warps you like Mario to a later stage.

The gardener is handy if you can find  him.

The Dwarf gardener has barricaded himself in one of the towers.  You can of course just kill him but if you come in peace he can give you some hints and help.  Even better if you share food with him he will introduce a secret passage.  However if you do kill him you can take his rune axe, Bokhorbhil.  This is a great weapon but it makes you murderous and you always have to take the combat option and can't escape.  However if you have already killed the Dwarf chances are you are already murderous and this will fit your plays style.  Good little roleplaying encounter this though. 

The lady from the cover, her eye shadow is not so good here.

You find the spiked maiden incarcerated in the dungeon.  The advice in the jailers room is to wear ear plugs, but this is a good double bluff.  As if you do you do not get to hear her tell you she is the Barons daughter and she has been put in this armour and has no control of it as she attacks you.  If you kill her you get a cruel message of you find out later who she is and the Baron is understanding but upset.  Clever.

This women is a bad egg.

Acting almost like a sub boss, the wizard Senyakhaz is a master illusionist.  She appears more than the big bad as she is the one that has drugged your friend the Baron and is pulling all the strings to help her master.  You can encounter her in a variety of ways but she does like to be in disguise and trick you into having a rest.  Spoiler, do not have a rest.  If you do reveal her though she will attempt an escape through a magic mirror that acts as a portal.  If she gets away you get a sub optimal ending where you are told you free the Baron from her control and the people of Neuberg are very grateful, but all you have done is delay the inevitable destruction of Neuberg.

Also this book loves gory and descriptive encounters, but only one really got me  -

Thats not something I was expecting to be in the wine......

Artwork - 

We have another new artist for Beneath Nightmare Castle, Dave Carson.  Its his one and only go from what I can see and if I am honest I can see why.  The illustrations are very important for me as they bring the book alive but this has to be the worst art since Starship Traveller.  Its totally devalues the horror aspect of the book.  But I also understand you are very limited in a children's book but the quality is just poor.

They are not all awful though as I do love the heads in the barrel above, and I do like the blood Lurcher.

Ill give the background a pass since its at night.

But it is a really good interpretation of the text, by far the best.  Also the old goblin curio seller is ok.

Not sure whats going on with tv static background though.

This scene with the Baron looks good as well, reminds me of Grima Wormtounge in Lord of the Rings.  Except she uses drugged wine to control the Baron. 

But I don't know, something just is not clicking with me for the art.  Higher standards have been set now in Fighting Fantasy.  The one illustration I found in my playthrough of the temple is bland and odd.  The Gnome, Dwarf, Barons daughter all look off.  Especially the Dwarf and his proportions.  Senyakhaz should also look far more epic, instead its like a portrait you see in castles.

These are meant to be illusions of an identical Senyakhaz, not sure whats with the random white circle behind them. 

A death scene with some rocks being thrown at you from the top of the tower.

Oh exciting, some weapons.

The priest, Cernic, with the Talisman you need looks more freaky than some of the Eldritch Horror monsters!

The Bakk-Ruman is described as having a human type head.  Not sure how many humans have heads like that.

In a trivia note there was an illustration for the women with the tentacle mouth that I met in my playthrough but Puffin cut it out - 

Okay yeah this would have been awesome but I can see why it was cut.

Big Bad - 

Xakhas is well.. wow!

To be fair good job with this artwork based on the descriptions in the text.  It gives me early Warhammer chaos spawn vibes.  Anyway back to Xakhas himself.  We do get a good bit of background on him from Huw, he was an archmage of the evil gods of the southerners of Zagoula and during the wars to drive the southerners out there was a secret war between the priests of Oiden and Xakhas.  When his body was defeated his spirit was sealed under the earth and the Temple and the Keep raised to protect it.  In the intervening years in limbo it appears he has gone a bit mad and seems intent on experimentation and is responsible for all the crazy monsters, limbs and diseases going about.  He has the crazed mad scientist vibe with absolutely no morals at all.  He would get on well with the Witches of Dree.  

I do like that you have multiple paths to success against him.  Just default Xakhas is Skill 14 and Stamina 32 but you can pick up weapons to aid you in the fight, either reducing him down to Skill 9 or even just instant killing him with a good throw of the green orb grenade.  If you do defeat him he has a small metal box in his head which you pass to Huw for safe keeping.  Apparently its his spirit.

Menagerie - 

Well to say Peter Darvil-Evans came up with some new and unique monsters for Fighting Fantasy would be an understatement.  The southerners are the initial bad guys as they are prowling about the town and they are painted very much as sinister and evil, but mainly as they are different.

There Snuffhounds sound much more scary in the description than this picture.

Dwarf bullies.

But look at how they are portrayed, cloaked and Arab like.  Now I have to remember the world was very different in 1987 and things should be judged in their time but it has not aged well.  It might be because of the conflict in Gaza going on as I write this thats made me notice.  It might not be that but its what I am seeing.

Lets have a more fun look though at the utter madness that you come up against.  I must say though that my favourite are the Blood Lurchers.  The Bakk-Ruman sounds good on paper if its illustration could have matched better.

The Charabats are undead zombie frogmen.  Because why not.

The Vlodblad, not the comfy chair it first appears to be.

He also has a fun mechanic where he starts with skill 3 but every time you fail to wound him in a combat he grows more limbs and it gains +2 skill.

Griltig is a Hobgoblin jailer who has a peg leg.  

A mottled Kraken, he has seen better days  Believe it or not thats meant to be water..

The Vitriol Essence does not like you disturbing his pool.  Captured here just before his genitals appear.

Not to mention all the others that dont have a picture like the Crate of Limbs.  Even stock guys like an Orc or the Ogre come with a twist as the Ogre is wearing a turban with a monster inside it controlling him.

Special shout out to Skarlos though - 

Look at all that light.

Except when you point out he is not Skarlos, as you may or may not have his trident.  But thats definitely not a trident he is holding anyway.  If you call him out on his bull he turns out to be - 

If you guessed a giant mutant slug award yourself 1 point.

Entertaining Deaths - 

I am sorry people but there are so many I had to truncate it, but with 49 instant death paragraphs the choices were overwhelming.

Not accepting help to free you in the cellar, you get sacrificed slowly and painfully in your third paragraph.

Looking about in the cellar, you get chased around and captured and then sacrificed slowly and painfully in your fourth paragraph.

Getting caught stealing a pie and getting into a fight with an angry grocer, you get tried and executed as a common criminal the same day.

Taking a blood lurcher tentacle, which eats your food in the pack and turns into a kiss of death protoplasm and attaches to your head next time you look in your pack for provisions.  You run about mewling until it drains you of blood, leaving you as a husk.

Being captured by the guards who feed you well but every night tie you down at the base of a tower as the guards take turns throwing boulders at your head from the top, one eventually hits you.

Trying on an Ogres turban, it has a brain defiler in it and it takes control of your body.

Stepping into a tapestry and ending up in a temple in Dolod in the Southlands.

Using the Talisman near a mirror and burning your brain and melting your eyes and leaving the word LOTH burned into your forehead.

Going through a magic mirror and ending up in a completely different dimension. 

My favourite though is not one of the many many gruesome deaths but instead - 

Drinking some magic fertilizer and turning into a tree and living for hundreds of years.

Pete's Corner - 

Accept the help from the voice in the cellar.

Final Thoughts - 

I think I can best describe Beneath Nightmare Castle as a mixed bag.  The things it does well, it does really well.  The parts I do not like, I really did not like.

Lets start with a positive, the atmosphere.  I do not mean though when you are in the castle which is creepy but the town of Neuberg.  I really enjoyed the feeling of the town and the danger after dark.  Something is clearly not right and I really enjoy the writing around this piece.  

Also instead of a story at the start, you get the story unravelling during the adventure.  And it is a very good story, its a shame some people will miss it as you are only going to get it if you play multiple times as you can beat the book multiple ways which means you could miss info dumps.  I do not count that as a negative though as I love multiple paths to victory.  Do not get me wrong some are much harder than others but it does allow you to have a chance (a very small chance) with low stats.

The Menagerie is fantastic, what a selection of random monsters that we have not see before, all very Cthulhu like.  But for some reason they are all pretty weak.  The southerners for example are terrible fighters, I dont know how they took over Neuberg as the homicidal children could give some of them a run for their money.  

But this is just as well as PDE kills you through choices.  Far too many times you are doomed just for a simple choice.  Having instant deaths so early in the book is a bit daft.  The very first choice in paragraph 1 is a 50/50 death chance.  I mean its kind of obvious but if you have been burnt in other Fighting Fantasy books its not that obvious.  Also the bit where I died was complete overkill.  I was right, the banquet was a trap as its a giant monster, instant death.  If I had jumped instead of walked, luck test or instant death, my choice of walking was instant death, going towards the guards would have led me to dying as I did not have the trident.  I had one shot, go down that passage, go back and wait, win fights, dress up as guard, dont wait and sneak in.  Sounds simple but each decision point came with multiple others that would have killed me.  Felt a bit much.

I also did not enjoy the keep, I found the writing of directions a bit too hard to follow and found it easy to get lost, even when I was trying to map it out.  I would have much preferred going around the upper levels before working your way down, it felt that everything was below ground.  And yes I do not know what else I expected from a book thats entitled Beneath Nightmare Castle, clue was in the name.

Mechanics wise, Willpower was a good introduction, mainly because it opened up a whole new world of horrible deaths if it ever snapped.  This one does need to be a good roll to make it through and is slightly better than the fear mechanic precisely for some of the descriptions on how your mind breaks.  I also liked all the different weapons such as the Dwarfs rune axe forcing you to attack or other ones where more skill cost stamina or sacrifice skill for wounding four stamina per hit.  And of course the Trident but getting that is very difficult and not going to happen unless you have multiple play throughs.  Rolling all the dice for the tests was a fun change as well but also a bit time consuming unless you can chuck loads of dice at once.  Do not try with cats around.

Also the various sub characters you meet have a bit of flesh (not tentacles) on them which is great.  I like the Dwarf gardener and having a sub boss like Senyakhaz adds more flavour.

All this sounds great right?  Well I do not know what it is but after I got into the keep it just does not seem to work for me.  The story is good, the writing is fine and the big bad is suitably vile but I do find a lot of the art abysmal and it might be what was taking me out of it.  

When I had done all my notes, I had an idea in mind but as I am typing it out I realise I probably liked it more that I thought.  Still somethings just not quite clicking for me.

Neuberg Keep Feast Hall after the defeat of Xakhas - 

Baron Tholdur "Thank you once again for saving me and the realm, forget a nice ring, I am going to name you my heir!"

Me "Wow thanks, erm what about your daughter?"

Baron Tholdur "That was me that put her in there, she was wearing that armour long before Senyakhaz came along."

Me "Wow, so I will be a Baron!"

Baron Tholdur "No I am Baron, you will be Marquis of Neuberg Keep."

Me "Oh wow so your a Marquis, all there years I thought you were a Baron."

Baron Tholdur "I am Baron."

Me "Yeah so Baron is your first name and your a Marquis?"

Baron Tholdur "No I am Baron Tholdur, Marquis of Neuberg Keep."

Me "So are you the Baron or the Marquis?

Baron Tholdur "I am the Marquis of Neuberg Keep, Baron Tholdur."

Me "Sigh, maybe have some of this wine Senyakhaz left behind."

Score - 5 out of 10.

Crypt of the Sorcerer

Background -  Ian is sitting alone in a cramped cupboard of an office at Puffin HQ.  Instead of his usual typewriter he looks at the green w...