Monday, 11 March 2013

Is That Absolutely Necessary?

Some readers will already have heard that the Mongoose Publishing reissues of the Lone Wolf gamebooks have been discontinued. That's not very likely to have much of an impact on this blog, though the likelihood of my being able to get the already published ones I lack has diminished, so I'm probably going to have to miss out some of the mini adventures. Given that the plan is for another publisher to pick up where Mongoose left off, it's possible that I'll be able to play through the whole of the planned 32-book run, but it's too early to tell how that will pan out. Regardless, it'll be at least November before my schedule is affected by any of this, and the availability (or not) of as yet unrepublished books won't matter until next summer at the earliest.

Lone Wolf's involvement in book 4 starts when he's asked to investigate the disappearance of the men who were investigating the disappearance of a convoy of gold from the mining province of Ruanon. In the mini adventure accompanying the Mongoose reissue, James M. Stuart's Ruanon, I play the leader of the troops whose disappearance prompts the King to call in Lone Wolf. Not the most promising set-up, but my character, Captain D'Val, sounds familiar, and not in a 'Scott of the Antarctic' way, so this might not be the sort of prequel that shows how everyone in it died to help set up the story it precedes.

Character creation is simple enough: roll up the usual stats, pick three abilities from a list of five, wonder how the publishers missed the fact that the Action Chart is the wrong variant. I get:
Combat Skill 13
Endurance 27
Given that abysmal CS, I'd better take Expert Swordsman as one of my abilities, as it gives me a much-needed bonus. For the other two, I'll try Master Tactician and Combat Sense.

My mission starts with a briefing from the King. The shipment of gold and gems is overdue enough that if it had been held up, a messenger would have brought news of the delay. Suspecting this to be the work of bandits or remnants of the army that invaded back in books 1-2, he orders me to take 100 troops to Ruanon, find the missing shipment and wreak a terrible vengeance upon the parties responsible.

Section 1 ends not with a decision, but a direction to another section. I don't like it when gamebooks do that. There are better ways of bulking out the section count to a round number. Maybe it's partly on account of my mild annoyance at being needlessly shunted around, but I take an immediate dislike to the Sergeant introduced in the next session, who pilfers food and may have head lice. At least this section has a choice in it, though not a very good one: visit the armoury and possibly get a weapon with a bonus, or leave immediately. It might be a different matter if checking out the armoury caused enough of a delay to affect subsequent events, but that doesn't appear to be the case, so the first choice in the adventure boils down to 'do you want stuff that will improve your chances of winning, or would you rather needlessly make things harder for yourself?' With my sub-par CS, I'm taking the Shield and every healing potion I can fit into my backpack.

I then join my troops, we set off, and I get sent to another section. A few uneventful days pass, we reach the more lawless part of the route, and again I'm shunted to a new section. And at last I get a meaningful decision/ability check. You know, the royal briefing could have been turned into a 'Background', the visit to the armoury covered in the 'Equipment' section of the rules, and the sections covering the early stages of the journey combined into section 1, and then the adventure would still have a number of sections divisible by 5, but there'd be a sense of getting into the adventure straight off rather than dragging things out.

My Master Tactician ability convinces me to send scouts ahead of the main force. Got your red shirts, men? The ability also determines my response when two of the scouts return bearing news of bandits lurking in ambush, but the outcome is still somewhat less than desirable. A well-organised group of thugs, larger than my army, advances on us, while other villains move to cut off our retreat. A side turning offers a possible way out, but I'm suspicious enough to suspect that it might be a trap. So I guess we fight.

More sections that only lead to other sections. Some of these may serve to link together disparate paths through the encounter, but I suspect that there's more number-padding at play here. And after a bit of combat, I see bandit reinforcements approaching (are bandit groups this large plausible?) and am forced to withdraw my troops onto the side turning. Clickety-clack, clickety-clack. Along the way I am compelled to rescue Sergeant Cheesethief-Headscratcher from a couple of bandits.

We are pursued, realise that the bandits will catch us up before we can get through the mountains, and find somewhere to make our stand. The pursuing force is around three times the size of the group that initially engaged us, and I start to suspect that this is no ordinary clan of bandits. Plenty more choiceless sections. I have to fight a bandit champion, but get the option of pulling back after three rounds of combat. Except that he dies in the third round, even though my Combat Skill has only been raised to 'average' by the bonuses I picked up, so there can't be many remotely competent players who'll need to decide whether to disengage or fight on.

I catch sight of the enemy commander within firing range, but have no bow. Still, I do have Master Tactician, which alerts me to the fact that single-handedly charging into enemy ranks would be dangerous, but eliminating their leader could be helpful. Also, water is liable to be wet. Considering how little choice I ultimately had about taking that side turning, I wouldn't be surprised to wind up having to attack him no matter what I decide, so I'll just get on with it.

It would appear that the General Melchett school of military tactics has not yet been introduced to Magnamund, as the bandits aren't expecting me to just charge into their midst, and I manage to kill everyone who stands between me and the bandit commander before they can react. He's a little more alert, though, so I have to properly fight him. Still, he's no better a fighter than the champion I killed earlier, and dies just as quickly. His death causes momentary confusion and disunity among the bandits, but then they get organised again.

By now around half my troops are dead, while enemy numbers continue to increase. Will a change of tactics help? Do any of my decisions here actually make a difference? We break through enemy lines, presumably to return to the road where we were originally attacked, and I lose my sword along the way. Good thing I didn't take a bow, as that would have forced me to discard my back-up weapon, which would mean a hefty Combat Skill penalty. As it is, the next bandit I have to fight also perishes before enough time has passed for me to be able to disengage from the combat.

The bandits don't appear to be pursuing us. I take stock, realising that a) I've lost about half my men, b) I've also lost my sword, and c) the author is restating already established facts for no good reason. Replacing my sword would restore the bonus I got from my Expert Swordsman ability, and we're heading back to the road where my troops and I first fought against the bandits, so there's a strong probability that there'll be some dead men with swords they no longer need just lying around there. Naturally I don't have the option of stopping to pick one up.

Some time later we stop, and I take stock of the situation, noting that roughly half of the soldiers who were accompanying me have died, those were no ordinary bandits, and the author keeps repeating things he's already stated. I decide to press on to Ruanon in the hope of getting there before the next reminder that half my troops are dead and I no longer have a sword.

After a couple of hours we reach the forest surrounding Ruanon. We won't be able to move so quickly in there, so there's a distinct possibility that the bandits who didn't appear to be pursuing us might catch us up. Naturally, this is just the time to think about making camp. Or leaving the road altogether, because 50 armed men on horseback will be so much stealthier walking on the fallen twigs that carpet the forest floor. I opt to stay on the road.

As we continue, I become aware that there could be bandits hiding behind the trees. Mere hours later, I catch a glimpse of a man in red (masters of the art of camouflage, this lot), and then ambushers spring out from behind bushes and leap from ditches and basically turn out to have been hiding pretty much everywhere but behind the trees. An arrow hits me in the arm, and we gallop away from the bandit archers while they're waiting for the author to point out that one of them shot my arm, that I sustained a wound to the arm from a bandit's arrow, and that my arm was injured when a bandit fired an arrow into it.

At last we emerge from the forest and reach Ruanon. Which is abandoned and partially in ruins, the Baron's castle burned to the ground. There are a few dead people there, but most of the population have just disappeared. I order my men to fortify our position and wait for the King to realise that something is afoot and send reinforcements. Several sections go by without a whiff of a decision. I get my wounds treated, we finish preparing our defences, destroying the buildings outside our perimeter so the bandits won't be able to use them for cover, and the text points out that we'll have to wait for the King to send more troops to investigate our disappearance.

Days pass. It becomes clear that the 'bandits' are some kind of invading force from Vassagonia, and the missing villagers have been captured and forced to work in the nearby mines. Every so often, one escapes, and is killed by snipers hiding out in the buildings we destroyed to prevent the Vassagonians from hiding out in them. Then, one evening, a villager breaks out of the mines and manages to avoid attracting Vassagonian attention for long enough that my men are able to bring him inside our defensive perimeter. It turns out that he's the Baron, and he's in a pretty poor state both physically and mentally.

I have one of the rooms in the watchtower made ready for him to stay in. He babbles names and recites an ominous-sounding verse, which might possibly create a sense of mystery but for the fact that it obviously refers to the big 'twist' from Lone Wolf book 4, which at least 99% of this adventure's readers are already going to know about by the time they get around to playing Ruanon. The author restates things again.

More time passes. Supplies begin to run low. The author finally decides to have Combat Sense do something, so one night I wake with a bad feeling. Soft footfalls from behind the door alert me to the fact that someone is creeping around in the watchtower. Either a Vassagonian assassin has slipped through the defences, or that thieving Sergeant is on the way to the larder. In case it's the former, I hide behind a tapestry.

The door opens, and in comes a man in the most stereotypical assassin costume imaginable. There's been no mention of my leaving something in the bed to make it look as if I'm still there, and if I had done, the author would probably have reminded me of it twice already. It can't be long before my black-clad, dagger-wielding intruder figures that I'm not asleep and starts knifing likely hiding places, so I attack before he has time to spot that the bed is vacant, observe that I'm not in bed, and realise that I'm somewhere other than the bed.

The assassin notices that the bed is unoccupied, which puts him on his guard enough that I fail to kill him on the spot, but I do wound and disarm him, and the resultant fight is over soon enough that I don't get to find out what would have happened if it lasted longer. Given that, moments later, a group of my men burst in and find out that I've already seen to the intruder, I suspect that they'd have come to my rescue if the fight had taken longer, but as it is, I didn't need their help.

My wounds are treated, and it becomes apparent that the assassin killed two sentries and mortally wounded another two on his way to my room. More days pass. Still no opportunity to get a new sword. Then there's some commotion. Lone Wolf comes into view, heading for our encampment. There are Vassagonians pursuing him, though, and his prospects look grim.

Back when playing through the original Lone Wolf series in the nineties, I lost at least two Lone Wolfs when reaching the point in book 4 that corresponds to this sequence. Now, as Captain D'Val, I am asked if I have a bow. If failure is guaranteed by my not having selected one back before we even set off, I will be most displeased.

But it's not that bad: I just grab a bow and some quivers that happened to be lying around, and then hurry into the no-man's-land between our barricades and the Vassagonian encampment. Catching sight of a sniper in one of the inadequately demolished ruins, I try to shoot him before he shoots Lone Wolf. It all comes down to a roll... and I hit the jackpot. Whew! I empty both quivers, taking out a Vassagonian or one of their war dogs with every arrow, then grab Lone Wolf and carry him to safety.

Once recovered, Lone Wolf makes sense of the Baron's ramblings (and now the text operates on the assumption that the reader has already played the main adventure enough to know the Vassagonians' plan, as it's not explained here). Then the Vassagonians attack our fortress, using Ruanese villagers as human shields and inflicting minor wounds on us with boiling oil. Battle rages for a while, though I don't have to play out any actual fights. Somewhat anticlimactically, Sergeant Still-Alive-After-All reports the death of the enemy leader, and the Vassagonians retreat.

It transpires that the dead leader wasn't the actual leader leader (making the fact that I had nothing to do with his defeat even more anticlimactic), and Lone Wolf will have to thwart his schemes. My remaining troops and I stay in Ruanon, because that's how it happened in book 4.

Time passes. I send men to forage for food and supplies (but still don't get to pick up a new sword). While I'm making plans for storming the mines and notifying the King of what's afoot (two separate actions), a guard bursts in, tells me I need to see something, and hurries up to the watchtower roof. Why couldn't he give some indication of what's so important? And no, 'it's in a different section, and details would spoil the surprise' is not a valid reason.

From the roof, I see the King leading an army towards us. We join him, and prepare to go after Lone Wolf. The Baron joins us. By the time we reach the location of book 4's climax, Lone Wolf has already saved the world (and the Baron's daughter), but he points out that I helped save the day too. Yay.

So that's it, and I have to say that that was an abysmally-structured endgame. Here's a breakdown of how things went after I rescued Lone Wolf. Each bullet point represents a new section.

  • Get back to safety.
  • Lone Wolf learns the truth. The bandits attack.
  • Vassagonian tactics revealed. What turns out to be the final choice in the whole adventure: fight or hide up on direct troops from the top of the tower?
  • Battle sequence with no actual combat. Enemy leader reported dead, Vassagonians routed.
  • Actual enemy leader still at large. Lone Wolf sets off.
  • Make plans. Guard is needlessly vague.
  • It's the King. Follow Lone Wolf.
  • The world has already been saved. But thanks for the rescue.
Playing the adventure took me through 67 sections, only 21 of which actually included any kind of branching option. Even allowing for 'bottleneck' sections that allow for diverse paths to reconverge, that's still a lot of not-getting-to-make-decisions. Ruanon is 150 sections long, but I strongly suspect that it could have been pared down to 100 without reducing the reader's autonomy in the slightest.

I wouldn't have paid what I did for the Lone Wolf reissues if I wanted them to fail. But based on the quality of this mini-adventure, and certain other Mongoose exclusives, I have to say that my reaction to the withdrawal of the publishers' license to the range is not so much 'What a pity' as 'No great loss'.


  1. My thanks for a hliariously sarcastic review! You're an excllent writer and I very much enjoy this blog; please keep up the great work!

  2. Arrgghh! My apologies, and please excuse the misspellings above; apparently I was tired when I typed up that comment.