Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Strange How the Same Life Patterns Recur

Between Warlock magazine and Titan - the Fighting Fantasy World, Ian Livingstone's Crypt of the Sorcerer got a fair bit of advance publicity. I don't remember where I got my original copy, but I do know that, while I looked through it a fair bit, I didn't actually play it as promptly as I had many others. This was because I was going on an exchange trip to Germany during the Easter holidays, and saved the book for the journey.

I can't remember whether or not I used dice. The fact that I got as far as I did through what is a preposterously difficult gamebook suggests that I didn't, but the circumstances of my failure make that less certain: I chose to avoid a certain item because I suspected (quite rightly) that it would come to life and attack me, as a result of which I missed obtaining something else that I needed to survive the climactic confrontation. And why would I have wanted to avoid a fight if I'd been playing without dice and automatically winning every battle?

In any case, I played it on the train to the port from which we were departing, and after failing it, I managed to persuade Mr. Sanders, the teacher accompanying us, to have a go. He failed much more quickly, and as payback for the experience, insisted that I assist him in completing the cryptic crossword in his newspaper. I still remember that one of the clues included the words 'not cheap' as an anagram of 'cenotaph'.

In Germany I got the penfriend with whose family I was staying to have a go at the book. He definitely used dice, as an unlucky roll got his character throttled by the opponent I'd so catastrophically chosen to evade.

Rolling up a character would be a waste of time. If you don't have maximum stats, you're doomed. Actually, even with the highest possible scores in all attributes, you're still doomed, but you might last a bit longer before dying. Or you might fall victim to the 1 in 3 chance of getting Instant Deathed in the very first encounter on the tiresomely narrow True Path.

The plot is straightforward enough. An evil wizard named Razaak has come back from the dead because of an idiotic loophole in the magic used to seal him into his tomb, so I have to find the mystical McGuffins required to re-kill him. I learn all this from Yaztromo, the friendly wizard who appeared in The Forest of Doom and Temple of Terror, because at this stage of Ian Livingstone's writing career, he loved continuity between books almost as much as he loathed giving his readers even the slightest possibility of getting anywhere near winning.

Anyway, first I need to find the sword that used to belong to Razaak, as that's the only weapon that can harm him. It's currently in the possession of the hero who killed him the first time, who's become something of a hermit ever since killing Razaak caused him to turn into an animated skeleton. He's drifting about on a raft on the lake where he found the sword, somewhere in the Moonstone Hills, so I trek into them.

The first two decisions in the book concern which direction to go. Make the wrong choice either time, and you miss out on an essential item. I go the right way, and get attacked by half a dozen Harpoon Flies, which spit poisoned spikes at me. A roll of the die determines how many of the spikes hit me - and it's the lot. That much poison is enough to paralyse me, causing me to topple from my horse and land head-first in the marsh through which I was travelling. The Flies then lay their eggs in my body, and despite being face down in muddy water and completely unable to move, I don't drown, but have to spend the next few days waiting for the larvae to hatch out and eat me alive.

My previous online attempt lasted longer, but even then I only made it through the first nine encounters, and didn't get as far as actually acquiring the sword, let alone most of the other junk and trivia needed for getting through to the ludicrously unfair final battle.


  1. Wouldn't it be so much better if the *enemies* died in sickly conceived ways?

  2. Hahaha, oh dear. I got a bit further and will have to put that post up sometime. I don't think it's a spoiler to say I died though.

  3. Even armed with the foreknowledge of (many) previous playthroughs, as you infer, this is still the hardest ff in my opinion. Masks has more instant death scenarios, Prophecy and Tide are more cryptic (and more interesting), Sardath also suffers slightly from having to follow a narrow path in order to succeed and Havoc, whilst mind-bogglingly difficult, at least has a compelling backstory/mystery element to it. Crypt is just obscene.

  4. It is ridiculous. Over 40 sections are Instant Deaths (that's more than 10% of the book).

    I've done a little number-crunching on the likelihood of surviving all the non-stat-related rolls. To acquire every essential item requires you to have two encounters which are automatically lethal one time in three (taken together, they already bring the likelihood of success below 50%), and fight that blasted Clay Golem, which has a 1 in 6 chance of inflicting Instant Death every round until it's killed. Given its Stamina of 9, that means a minimum of two rounds in which that risk is present (and you'd have to win every round and successfully Test your Luck twice to bring it down that low). Combined with the aforementioned incidents, that brings the chance of survival down to just under 31%. Figure in conventional fights, stat checks, other random stuff that doesn't automatically kill you, but could inflict penalties that will increase the likelihood of failure later on, and Razaak's 'kill you if he wins two consecutive rounds of combat' ability, and Masks of Mayhem's 1 in 6 chance of finding an essential item starts to look positively favourable.

    The plot is acceptable, but gameplay-wise, the book is an abomination.

  5. Its just silly, because anyone will tell you that the 'sweet spot' for entertainment is 'challenging without being impossible. CotS is just gambling in the sense that you can use strategy and forethought but simply be reliant on favourable rolls to get thought. Why bother?

  6. Back in the day, I never realized how difficult this book was, because I always made a few attempts without dice first to find what I thought was the optimal route and when I did start playing honestly, I managed it in just a few attempts. It helped that I was using a character who had already completed several other books, including the later Tower of Destruction, so he had a Stamina of 25 and a whole lot of useful kit, but I know now that I must still have been incredibly lucky.