Wednesday, 2 March 2022

When the Hurting Starts and When the Nightmares Begin

I remember very little of the mini-adventure in Fighting Fantazine 11, Stuart Lloyd's Ascent of Darkness. That is partly because my first attempt at it was a rapid failure - I only got to make one decision before my character died in combat. Or possibly three decisions, since a couple of elements of character creation involve choosing things. Nevertheless, I didn't get very far. Furthermore, for reasons which now elude me, at that time I was on a drive to have played every FF mini-adventure in Fantazine at least once, so rather than have another go at Ascent, I immediately moved on to the mini-adventure in the next issue, and until now I've had no motivation to go back to Ascent even without unplayed mini-adventures 'demanding' my attention.

Though this adventure is set on the FF world of Titan, it takes place more than 250 years before the main range adventures, and not long before the outbreak of a devastating war against the forces of Chaos, during which the city of Carsepolis was besieged and pretty much destroyed by armies of Orcs, Goblins, Dark Elves and Chaos-Spawn. In subsequent years the oft-visited hive of iniquity that is Port Blacksand was built on its ruins.

By a funny coincidence, my character comes from the similarly-named city of Caresepolis, the fate of which has never been covered in any FF reference works. Or maybe the author, playtester and editor all failed to spot the repeated misspelling of the name before issue 11 went to print, even though another contributor to the zine had already pointed out the correct spelling while proofreading a different article from the same issue.

At the start of the adventure, I am away from home (whichever way you spell it), endeavouring to help defend the town of Karnak Tor from the armies of Caarth (serpentine humanoids which have featured in a couple of earlier gamebooks, though when playing those books here I evaded the Caarth encounter in one and died too soon to meet any of them in the other) that keep invading from the nearby Desert of Skulls. This is not going brilliantly: in the course of repelling the attacks, more than two thirds of the troops who accompanied me have been killed, and the hostilities are not yet over.

Character creation is a little different from usual. Stats are generated within a narrower range than usual, and one of them will be increased by whichever of the three available Heroic Powers I choose. I'll roll first, and see what the unmodified stats are like before I choose which one to boost... Remembering how quickly I lost that first fight on my previous attempt, I think I'd better do what I can to improve my Skill. 
Skill: 10
Stamina: 17
Luck: 9
Heroic Power: Speed of Pangara
Heroic Flaw: Hubris
Picking the Heroic Flaw was easy, considering the arrogance my character displays in taking full credit for the Heroic Power, which most acquaintances believe to be a divine blessing.

Having learned to recognise the shape made in the sand by a concealed Caarth, I can see that there are a lot of them around an hour's march from Karnak Tor, but as they're very sluggish at night, it should be around eight hours before they actually attack. Time enough for a good rest for me and my men. Not that my night is particularly restful, as my sleep is troubled by foreboding and possibly prophetic or symbolic dreams in which I see my father floating in the air and get hit in the shoulder by an arrow. 

Waking to find that dawn is still a couple of hours off, I summon the troops, and we head out to take the battle to the enemy. If my Heroic Power were the cunning-based one, it might be worth taking the time to seek out the most advantageous position from which to attack, but I went for speed, so I order an immediate strike while the Caarth are still torpid from the nocturnal chill. Not that their condition gives them any penalty to Attack Strength or Skill, judging by the stats of the warrior I soon face.

During fights I also have the option of using Heroic Stunts - assorted manoeuvres that can inf;ict additional damage or Attack Strength penalties on my foe(s), though if they don't work, I take extra damage instead. My speed gives me improved odds when attempting a Flurry of Blows (which works best against multiple opponents, but is not ineffective when going one-on-one), and though my first couple of attempts at using Stunts prove unsuccessful, persistence pays off, and the Caarth dies in around half the time it would have taken me to kill it using just the regular combat rules.

Surveying the field of battle, I see Caarth reinforcements rising from the sand, threatening to overcome my troops by sheer force of numbers. However, potentially greater cause for concern is the robed Caarth who's wielding a staff with a crystal on the end, since the crystal is starting to glow in a way that hints at an imminent release of destructive magical energies. I charge to attack the probable Sorcerer, and another Caarth warrior attempts to intercept me.

Rather confusingly, this section goes on to outline the fight against the warrior, including directions to turn to one section if the Caarth is killed in no more than four rounds, another if it is still alive after four rounds, and yet another if it dies in four rounds. Either the first of those is supposed to be 'fewer than four rounds', or the third of those options is redundant, since the set 'four or fewer' includes 'four'. However, that's not my problem right now, as my Speed enables me to avoid that fight and spear the staff-wielding Caarth before it can unleash the powers it sought to use against my army.

A screech rings out, and the Caarth fall back, except for one particularly large warrior - around 3 metres tall -  who issues a challenge for one warrior to face it in single combat. I would expect my Hubris to compel me to accept, but the text makes no mention of that flaw, and allows me to choose whether to go one-on-one against the champion, throw my spear, or order the troops to charge. I'm going to play my character anyway, and not pass up this opportunity to display my prowess.

As I charge to the attack, the Caarth champion goes for a sneaky kick, and not even my Speed permits me to dodge. Lacking the strength-based Heroic Power, I get knocked down, taking minor damage before the fight begins. It turns out that the champion has his own Stunt, and while it's not as impressive as mine, the additional damage it does (in combination with some lucky rolls for Attack Strength) is enough to ensure that I don't survive the fight.

That's a pretty brutal adventure. From inadvertent glimpses of other sections I saw that the vast majority of opponents have double-figure Skill scores, and while the amended rules for character generation and the bonus to Attack Strength provided by equipment guarantee an effective minimum Skill of 10, damage taken in battle is likely to be high, and opportunities to recover Stamina appear to be scarcer than normal for FF.

The description of Ascent on the contents page suggests that battling the Caarth isn't even the primary focus of the adventure. The fact that after playing it twice I still haven't got beyond what would be the pre-opening credits sequence in a Bond film suggests that it might be a little unbalanced as regards playability. Not knowing what the actual plot involves also makes it harder for me to get invested in the adventure. For reasons I shall explain at a later date, I'm likely to be playing this again off-blog before the end of the year, and while I'm not dreading the prospect, I'm not particularly enthusiastic about it either.