Wednesday, 21 November 2012

I Was Uncomfortable: Now I'm Uncomfortable

During the first quarter of 1985, White Dwarf magazine published The Dark Usurper, a three-part Fighting Fantasy adventure by Jon Sutherland and Gareth Hill. I knew nothing of it when it came out, and while I did acquire one instalment in the nineties, the adventure languished incomplete and unregarded in my FF collection until last year, when someone put the relevant WD issues up for sale on eBay and mentioned the auctions at the unofficial FF forum. I placed bids on the ones I lacked, was not outbid, and finally got the opportunity to play the adventure. I won the first part with little effort, and barely any use of the dice.

My background is a lot more specific than is usual for FF at this stage: I am Corwin Calbraith, Duke of Skeln, recently returned from an unsuccessful crusade, and imprisoned in my own castle by inhuman servants of the 'new' Duke of Skeln.

Like Smith & Thomson's Orb, Skeln appears to be separate from Titan: it's also the setting for The Stench of Death, a systemless multiplayer scenario that Sutherland co-wrote for GM magazine a few years later. From what little I know about the place, it could probably be shoehorned into Titan without much effort, but I can see no good reason to bother. Especially when TDU doesn't seem to want to be a FF adventure. It uses the rules, but not the style, lacking distinctive formatting and phraseology (for example, there are no italics on 'Test your Luck', and the text says 'If you succeed' rather than 'If you are Lucky'), while adding 'if you lose' options for every fight to spell out the fact of Corwin's death rather than letting the zero-or-less Stamina speak for itself as FF usually did.

In addition to being un-FF-like in tone, the writing is pretty poor. Consider this excerpt from the Introduction (not 'Background' as in most FF books):
Speeding to your hilltop castle you find strange grey creatures there to greet you. Realising that resistance was useless, they escort you to a cell at the top of the highest tower in the fortress.
There you have languished, confused and bewildered.
Indeed. Too confused and bewildered to be able to tell which tense to use. Or to recognise when separate clauses of a sentence have different subjects. While the temporal confusion does clear up once the authors no longer have to wrestle with the complexities of distinguishing between past and present, other grammatical sloppiness persists.

Still, I'm supposed to be playing the adventure as well as critiquing it, so I'd better roll up Corwin's stats.
Skill: 8
Stamina: 20
Luck: 9
Mind you, Corwin has grown progressively weaker over the course of the three months he's spent as a prisoner, so in his current condition he's... at full Skill, Stamina and Luck. Even if the authors weren't aware that House of Hell had already set a precedent for starting at less than full stats, it's not so radical a concept that they couldn't have thought of it themselves. Did they not dare to 'tamper' with the rules, or did they just not care?

The first time I played this, I escaped from my cell by prising up floorboards. Just for a bit of variety, I'll go for the bedsheet rope option this time. Perhaps not such a good idea, as I'm only able to get 20 feet's worth of rope, and that's obviously not going to be enough to take me from 'the top of the highest tower' to the ground. Still, it might reach to a window in a less secure room, so I'll give it a go.

It turns out that there is another window sort of within range-ish, but it's several feet to my left. Still, swinging that far shouldn't be beyond the capabilities of a heroic adventurer, should it? Alas, Corwin isn't much of a hero, and swings into the wall rather than the window. I lose my grip, fall, and inexplicably die mid-air so as to be spared the impact with the ground. And for some bizarre reason the section ends with musings on how the King might react to news of my death: a detail that matters to me about as much as the third most recent increase in the price of dental floss in Greeley, Nebraska.

A pretty poor showing, but that's not inappropriate, as it's a pretty poor adventure. It’s a pity that my previous online playthrough of TDU wasn’t salvageable when the forum on which it was hosted got deleted, as that was more substantial, and included a good deal more snark directed at shoddy writing and plotting (plus a bit of 1970s nostalgia).

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