Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Well, We Know Where We're Goin'

I got my first copy of Scorpion Swamp (by a different Steve Jackson from the co-creator of Fighting Fantasy, in case anyone reading this doesn't already know) as part of a box set, Fighting Fantasy Gamebox 2. You'd have to be a serious FF geek to realise that that is actually a confession of an adolescent wrongdoing. The thing is, Scorpion Swamp was not part of the box set. I swapped it for one of the books that was supposed to be in there. There's nothing I can do to remedy that misdeed now, as the shop closed over 20 years ago. I can't even remember its name. I know it was on the High Street, it was not part of a chain, and it was there that I finally tracked down the second Be An Interplanetary Spy book, there that I flicked through copies of a few Golden Dragon books, there that I bought one other FF book (but I'll say more about that another time), there that I got one of the Storytrails books for a friend during their closing down sale... I got some Doctor Who novelisations there, too. And I no longer have the faintest idea what it was called.

My first attempt at the book left little impression on the memory. It must have been the first time I came across the word 'paladin', as I do remember being surprised that my character had a name, and such a strange one, too (it took me a while to realise my mistake there). I also remember when my dad played the book, principally because I was quite shocked when he opted to look into the quest being offered by the evil wizard, Grimslade. I now realise it was probably his way of checking to see if the book was a bad influence. Given that his response to Grimslade's attempt at testing his suitability for the job ended with the wizard dead and his character having to find an alternate sponsor, if he was testing the book, it passed.

On to the premise. The eponymous swamp is infamous, as the twisty-turny paths through it, the fog that constantly hides the sky, and the strange way it renders compasses totally inaccurate make it completely unnavigable. At least until my character helps out an old woman and is rewarded with a magic ring. While wearing the ring I can always tell which way is north. Also, it heats up in the presence of evil. No invisibility, though. Still, I can explore the swamp where your average adventure fears to tread, now that I have a totally reliable way of telling which way is which. I mean, what more could I need?
Skill: 8
Stamina: 19
Luck: 9
Well, better stats, for a start. And Provisions, too. But attribute boosts are scarce, and food even more so.

The book includes a couple of innovations (three if you include the Spell Gems). Firstly, there's the fact that there are three separate quests that can be undertaken within it, and you only get to pick one on any individual attempt. This means that the book has more than one 'victory' ending (and none of them are the final section). Secondly, there's much greater freedom of movement within the swamp than in most FF books - going back the way you came is almost always possible (and there's a reason why it can't be done on the few occasions that it's not), and there's a simple but functional system to allow actions to have consequences, so the monster you fought the last time you were in this clearing is still dead when you return (unless you Escaped, in which case it's probably waiting for you). While Scorpion Swamp isn't one of the FF greats, it certainly deserves some praise for daring to try out some new tricks.

Anyway, on my way to the swamp I stop off at the village of Fenmarge. The locals in the inn are shcked to hear of my intent, and mention that, in addition to the known dangers of the swamp, it has recently become home to a group of powerful magicians, and the one that came into town not so long before was not the friendly type. I don't let them deter me, but do allow myself to get waylaid by a man who suggests that I might want a better-defined goal than 'wander around the swamp killing monsters'. I agree, and head off to see what the local good wizard, Selator, wants done in the swamp. He explains that the last surviving bush of the Antherica plant, which has healing properties, is located in the swamp, and if someone were to bring back a berry from it, he could make the plant widely available again. I accept the mission, and get to take half a dozen gems that will enable me to cast spells. Based on my memories of what the swamp contains, I take three Fire spells, one Ice, one Stamina and one Bless. And then I set off.

Before long I reach clearing 1. All the clearings in the Swamp have been numbered, to facilitate the 'if you have been here before' checks. I'm not sure if there's any actual logic to how they're numbered - I don't think any two adjacent clearings have consecutive numbers, and some numbers are just missing. There is no clearing 2, for starters. Whether that's just to make the layout more confusing for the readers, or indicative of edits having removed the occasional clearing, I cannot tell. Clearing 1 itself is little more than the convergence of three paths, though it is possible for a sufficiently Unlucky player (Hello!) to fall over and get mildly injured.

Mapping is strongly recommended, and the book suggests an approach much like that of a Tube map, which largely ignores the way the track twists and bends, and concentrates on showing the stops and line intersections.

On the map, this would be a straight line

I head east and arrive at clearing 12, which also has three exits. It also contains a hollow tree and some flat stones, and is a pleasant spot to stop and rest (becoming less pleasant if you decide to investigate the strange sounds that start emanating from the tree after the rest has healed as much damage as the earlier stumble did).

With better stats I might go for a thorough exploration of the swamp, but I can't afford the Stamina attrition that's liable to ensue if I start doing things like heading west to encounter the unimaginatively named monster from the cover illustration, so I go north. Before long I cannot help but notice the growing profusion of cobwebs, and soon I come to clearing 17, the silken pavilion of the evil Master of Spiders.

One thing that puzzles me about the book is the relative scarcity of scorpions in it. They appear in only three clearings (and only as an incidental detail in one of them), which is pretty low for a place named after the creatures. It's a pretty odd mix anyway, what with scorpions favouring arid regions, which are about as unlike swamps as you can get. This isn't even the only gamebook to stick such an unlikely combination into its title: Dave Morris went on to write one entitled Swamp of the Scorpion for his Transformers series a few years later. But the really strange thing is that, having decided on a scorpion-based title for this book and its setting, when Mr. Jackson decided to give one of the resident wizards an arachnoid theme, he went for spiders rather than scorpions.

Anyway, I know that this particular Wizard will kill me as soon as talk to me, so I waste no time, and break out the first of those Fire spells. This causes the whole place to go up in flames (would have been a great opportunity to do something with the myth that fire causes scorpions to sting themselves to death). I get somewhat singed as I hurry to the north exit, but take no more damage than I would have from a single wound in combat against the Master of Spiders, and given his higher-than-8 Skill, I suspect I would have taken at least one wound fighting him.

Further north is clearing 24, a pleasant, grassy spot until I realise that the grass is growing a lot more quickly than usual, and its blades end in cute little pincers that uncutely snap at me. This is a clump of Crab Grass, a joke that loses some of its effectiveness in Britain, where the term is rarely used. In keeping with the gag, it's got a low Skill, making it easy to hit, but a high Stamina, so killing it takes a lot of effort. I do prevail, but not without taking some damage along the way.

Observing the message 'Beware of Orcs' burned onto a nearby tree, I hurriedly head west to clearing 5. A battle has taken place here at some point, as three dead Swamp Orcs and one arrow-riddled human litter the place. The dead man has been looted, but a golden pendant in the shape of a magnet hangs around his neck. This set-up forms part of one of the most annoying aspects of the whole book. An astute reader might infer from the corpse's having been stripped of valuables that there's something dodgy about the pendant. Some may even wonder if it has anything to do with the number of arrows sticking out of the dead man's chest (it does). So naturally, the best course of action to take here is... to grab the pendant and take it with me. Seriously. I know from past attempts that if I don't, I will regret it.

Wesy of clearing 5 is clearing 29, another grassy one, with an injured Unicorn in it. The Unicorn is initially hostile, but after I use my Bless spell to all but heal the gashes on its flank, it becomes friendly, and digs up a couple of Spell Gems that someone had buried in the clearing. so I gain a Luck spell and a Friendship spell. The clearing has four exits, but right now the only one that'll be any good for me is the one leading back the way I came. So I return to clearing 5, where I find that someone (or something) has removed the dead Orcs. The first scorpion I've seen all swamp watches me as I continue east back to clearing 24, where the Crab Grass has not grown back.

East again, into new territory for this attempt at the book, namely clearing 26, which contains a trio of Swamp Orcs with bows. They fire at me, the magnet pendant does its trick, and the arrows hit me. Not lethally, just painfully. So why did I take the magnet? Because if I didn't have it, one of the arrows would have just clipped my arm and taken off a point of Skill, and Skill loss damages my chances in combat a lot more than Stamina loss. I attack the Orcs before they can reload, and from looking at the numbers rolled, I can see that losing that Skill point would have resulted in my taking more additional damage in battle than was inflicted on me by the arrows. So taking the item that was obviously going to be bad for me has proved less harmful than leaving it alone like any sane person would. Now you see why I said it was annoying.

The Orcs have a little gold, and a largely uninformative map that does show a frog with a crown to the south. I have nothing to gain by investigating the path that leads south (though if I were on a different quest, I would have an opportunity to name-check Deathtrap Dungeon, thereby confirming that this is set in the same world as the last few FF books).

To the north is clearing 3, where nothing happens except that I choose the exit that goes east to clearing 21. This contains a pool of water, which turns out to have healing properties. Funnily enough, the shop where I got my first Scorpion Swamp was not far from the spring which gave Tunbridge Wells its name. Mind you, I'm pretty sure repeat visitors to that spring don't usually get fired upon by an unseen bowman, as would happen to my character if he were to come back to this pool at any time. Not good for the tourist trade, snipers.

Back west to clearing 3, then, and west again to clearing 13, which is full of scorpions. Mildly evil scorpions, to judge by the ring's reaction. Regardless, I leap over them as they rush me, and hurry north to clearing 35, location of the bridge over the charmingly named Foulbrood River. The bridge is in excellent condition, and by far the safest way of getting across the river to clearing 16. This clearing contains a large tree, and up the tree is a large nest, and not in the large nest, but giving me a funny look is a large Eagle. I do my best to look harmless, and the Eagle flies to the nest.

West of here is clearing 32, the other part of Scorpion Swamp that actually has anything scorpion-related in it. In this instance it's a single Giant Scorpion, which is currently busy killing a Dwarf, so I decide not to get involved, and creep back the way I came. And by the time I get back to clearing 16, the Eagle has departed, so I can climb the tree and help myself to the large golden chain that's wrapped around one of the branches.

This time I take the exit east, which leads to clearing 30, where I get slightly bogged down in quicksand, but manage to extricate myself before I can get into serious trouble. Hurrying north to clearing 7, I catch my foot in a depression in the ground and trip over. Funny depression - looks almost exactly like a 50cm-long bootprint...

And not far away is a Giant. Wearing open-toed sandals, so I guess the art brief for this illustration wasn't quite precise enough about his footwear. The ring indicates that he's not evil, but he appears to be impersonating Gandalf at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, which isn't very convenient for me. I ask if he can do an impression of a confused Mastermind contestant instead, and he reveals himself to be deeply unhappy because someone has stolen the new handkerchief his wife had made him. From past attempts I happen to know that the handkerchief-thief happens to have a Skill of 10, so he's far enough out of my league that I shan't be going anywhere near him. Still, the Giant is no longer in a fighting mood, so I continue on my way.

To the north is cleaing 11, which contains the Antherica bush. Hurrah!

It also contains two Wolves. Not so good.

I get savaged to death. Bother.

And that fight could have been avoided if I'd made more use of my knowledge of what else can be found in the swamp, and made a detour into clearing 4 along the way. But if I'd done that, I might have been tempted to take a different route, and wound up fighting the Sword Trees. There's no way of completely avoiding getting into battle with the wretched things, as the fire in clearing 17 never goes out, and the only other path to clearing 1 goes through the one with the Sword Trees in. But as there's a good chance that they'd have turned my character to fertiliser, I went for the route that would give my readers a chance to see more of the swamp before I got into the one inevitable fight against a Skill 10 enemy. Oh well, at least the berry's still on the bush, where some other hero might find it one day.

1 comment:

  1. Nice play through. This was the second FF book I bought (none of my friends had done so because of the 'crap' cover). I haven't played it in a long time, so good to be reminded of goings on deep in the swamp.