Monday, August 9, 2010

#3 - "The Forest of Doom" by Ian Livingstone (1983)

Apologies all, a month of distractions of every stripe, personal and professional, has kept me secluded from the central business of my life, which I ASSURE YOU remains the hard-hitting analysis of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, and the enumeration of Skeleton-men. Let us pray that my life can struggle on free from incident for another three years or so, and perhaps the Great Work can be accomplished.

I should begin by pointing out that as a youngster nothing got my blood up like this cover portrait, entitled SHAPE-CHANGER, Beckoning, Steps Over A Log. There is no more elegant nor effective way to convey that concept the French know as "malĂ©diction de la forĂȘt" - I really do hope that the original is hanging spotlighted on a huge white wall somewhere, observed by grand men in tuxedos as canapes are served. However, like most of the early titles in the series the cover art was changed a few times over the release history. In the case of "Forest", you have to assume that there were commercial considerations at play since all adjustments seem to have been to the worse.

For instance, the version below obviously takes the original as a jumping off point but alloys it with kind of an underground hip-hop vibe:

The Reptilian Shape-Changer rap (contains spoilers): "MC I-C-K-E the name, that's how it spelt -- I seen alla y'all staring at the pouch on my belt -- got a SKILL of 10, and STAMINA too -- draw your steel on me, y'all wind up in a stew -- seasoned with some mushrooms that I found on a logg -- don't act like we friends, mayne, 'cos you ain't my dogg -- disguised as a goblin wit' a handle round my neck -- I come real stealth and I come correct -- leave you wit' brown stains on your Fruits of the Loom -- 'cos you should'na oughta come to THA FOREST OF DOOM" 
In this case the new cover isn't really bad, it's just a bit unnecessary. But there's worse yet:

There's just so much DOOM in this picture!
I guess this is from an American release or something because I've never seen an FF gamebook that remotely resembles it. There's such on overabundance of absurd and doomful detail in this illustration that I could easily expend another thousand or more words on it, but, to keep things moving fluidly let me merely highlight a few details for the reader's edification.

As an artist, it's easy to become a victim of Too Many Good Ideas.


From the introduction to "Forest" I inferred three notable innovations, departures from the preceding "Warlock" and "Citadel":

1) You don't have to assassinate a wizard.
2) You (the protagonist) can be charitably described as a socially maladjusted loner with a talent for violence, or less charitably, as a batshit-crazy psychotic who takes his coffee with milk and two lumps of SWORD-MURDER.
3) This time - you're in a forest.

Point 2 may raise some eyebrows given that this is supposed to be heroic fantasy, but I think the text bears it out. In the Background, we are told of your avoidance of company and how you have "always spurned the dullness of village life" (read: INABILITY TO CONNECT WITH OTHERS / DISDAIN FOR NORMS OF COMMUNAL LIVING), your dreams of troll-slaughter (read: HOMICIDAL IDEATION), and your loving fascination with your sword (read: CRAZY SWORD MURDERER).

"There's a full moon, and the light sparkles on the blade of your broadsword skewered into the ground by your side. You gaze at it, wondering when you will next have to wipe the blood of some vile creature from its sharp edge."

And then there's the fact that you're roaming about the wilderness, alone, just searching for things to kill, which sort of clinched it for me: Nutcase.

So one night a dwarf called "Bigleg" (no, really) bumbles into your campsite with a gutful of poisoned crossbow quarrels, and with his dying breath he begs you to carry on his quest to find "the hammer" and deliver it to the village of Stonebridge. This appeals to you as it promises violence, so you take up the mission without much reflection. In fact Bigleg's last words are fairly expansive as he also bequeaths you some money, recommends a place to go shopping for magic items, relives exciting moments from his recent past ("Ambush! Ambush! Aargh!"), badmouths "little people" (kind of rich coming from a dwarf) and finally hands over this map:

That's one shitty fuckin' map, Bigleg.

So sure enough section 1 kicks off as you arrive with your purse jangling at Yaztromo's Tower, which seems to have been architecturally inspired by a Hawkwind album cover. Yaztromo himself waddles down to the door and invites you up to shell out your dead dwarf's gold in exchange for enchanted curios. The protagonist is such a piece of work that he immediately considers whipping his sword out and running the old man through... since I try to stay in character, and my character was plainly psychotic, I drew my sword. Yaztromo warned me that he could "do magic" and so reluctantly I restrained the wholeseome and natural impulse towards wizard-murder and meekly truckled my way into the Forest of Doom gift-shop. 

(I didn't really believe our protagonist would've backed down, but I also didn't want to end the adventure prematurely. I took a peek later on and as I suspected, if you press the attack, Yaztromo PUTS YOU DOWN HARD. In fact he turns you into a frog. This definitely shows a lot of class on Yaztromo's part, along with a wry, "old school" sensibility. But fear not, and read on - my exceptional role-playing skills and commitment to the authenticity of the character would purchase my fate before "The Forest of Doom" was through)

Yaztromo has an inventory of about twenty magic items and you start with enough money to buy roughly half of them, so I picked up all the butch sounding ones ("Armband of Strength" yep - "Glove of Missile Dexterity" yes, please - "Potion of Stillness" and "Nose Filters", you can stay right there on the shelf). Yaztromo then politely inquires as to your business, leading to the embarrassing admission that you are looking for an unspecified "hammer" to take to "Gillibran", a character you know nothing about. This launches Yaztromo into a shaggy dog story explaining that the macguffin in question is a sacred war-hammer without which dwarven king Gillibran is "unable to arouse his people", because,  see, some other dwarven king sent an eagle to steal it and the eagle got the hammer and was flying back over Darkwood but then some "death-hawks" flew up and attacked the eagle so he dropped the hammer and then some goblins found it and... anyway it's a pretty dumb story and you have to wonder why Yaztromo knows the full sequence of events in all their silly detail. The upshot is that the handle got unscrewed from the head and the two parts of the hammer are lost somewhere in the forest, maybe in the possession of a couple of goblins... Yaztromo's intimate knowledge of the narrative suddenly evaporates at the point where he could've told you something useful. Too dim to be deterred by this news, our sociopathic hero wanders off into the trees, fondling the grip of his sword.

Rolling Up My Dude

Starting stats:
SKILL - 12
LUCK - 11

Another good SKILL roll! Low STAMINA, but starting from this book, the restrictions about eating provisions are gone (i.e. only one meal at a time and only when explicitly told you can eat it), which makes STAMINA a deal less important.

The Healing Power of Food: By eating ten meals simultaneously you can recover utterly from the brink of death three times over. This is what 40 STAMINA points worth of hot dogs looks like.

The Adventure

Darkwood Forest turns out to be rather a lot like the dungeon from "Warlock" only with pathways instead of corridors - lots of random direction choosing. You wander from encounter to encounter and are occasionally asked if you possess one of Yaztromo's wares, in which case it will confer some fleeting advantage.  Structurally speaking, it is not a particularly interesting adventure as you really are just roaming around at random hoping to stumble across the two pieces of the warhammer - there's no sense of tracking, or looking for clues. So, I gadded about the forest for a time, out into the hills, back into the forest,  up a tree, down a well, etc - west, north, east, north, south, west - just blundering from fight to fight until I emerged blinking from the trees to this:

Stonebridge! At last! Now what was I supposed to be doing again?
My search methodology of crashing through the trees attacking anything that reminded me of my mother had the expected results, i.e. I had neither hammerhead nor handle. At this point, the protagonist of "Warlock" would probably have sat down and had a little weep, however in "Forest" you are instead given the chance to go back to the beginning - walking around the edge of the forest to return to Yaztromo's tower - i.e. paragraph 1, the start of the adventure. Once again you can, if you please, menace him with your sword, be warned off, and sit through his dubious tale about the hammer-thieving eagle. I went through this charade and bought out the remainder of his inventory before continuing into the forest, trying to choose new paths and avoid awkward deja vu. I confess that I had become pretty sick of "Forest of Doom" at this point, and so I had my eye out for a suitable demise for my disagreeable anti-hero - quite convinced, by this time, that he was merely an axe shy of "axe-wielding lunatic", and that it really would be best for all concerned if he were to end up face-down in the shade somewhere. I'll relate the results in a moment, but first, a few of my more notable encounters...

Monsters and Combat

There is a lot of combat in this book - especially since, even if a creature is not initially hostile, you're almost always given the option to just go ahead and attack it. And playing true to the character, that's exactly what I did. This led to a few entertaining situations, e.g. in the case of this GNOME...

Get your hand off it, GNOME. first awaken him with "a gentle push" before being given the option of attacking him in a panic after he frowns at you. (Better yet, when you do so, he magicks your sword into a carrot - this was one of the forest's few denizens whose life I was unable to end, but I could at least petulantly throw my carrot at him).

Another wretch who got away was this CENTAUR. The text did a lot to talk up his fine qualities, describing him as both "noble" and "magnificent" and suggesting that I might like to ride on his back across the river.

This noble CENTAUR appears to be molded purely from magnificent  porridge and beard.
Naturally, I foamed at the mouth and charged him with sword aloft, prompting him to loose an arrow at me and then gallop away shouting "NEIGH NEIGH" in Belgian-accented English. "Maybe fighting the noble centaur is not such a good idea after all" the text chided, to which I responded: "Maybe you can ask a pigeon not to shit, but if you wanna be sureyou gotta press your finger on his bum" and left with my head held high in the ensuing silence.

Murder-inspired home invasion was another of my protagonist's vices. The image below shows what happens when you clamber uninvited through the window of an APE-MAN's treehouse just when he's running a bath.

APE-MAN draws aside the shower curtain and, OH MY GOOOOOOOD, it's the fright of his life!

Elsewhere, you can burst into a hut to find an old woman sitting in a chair reading a book. Once again you are invited to draw your sword and slay her...and even should you choose not to, here's what you're told:

The old woman throws back her head and roars with laughter as you start to make conversation. She is an evil woman. Lose 1 LUCK point and draw your sword.

You don't like the quiet ones. No sir. But the worst ones, the ones that really get to you, those are the ones who laugh. (And there I was thinking I was gonna to have to work to make the case for Fighting Fantasy protagonist as homicidal maniac).

A final honorable mention goes to these clueless BANDITS who wanted to mug me for "five objects from [my] backpack". Just any old "objects", huh? This is a gang with low aspirations - four rubber bands and last Sunday's "whoopsie" Y-fronts, coming right up.

"Might be rude to point this out, miss, but you got yourself one sorry-looking gang of peckerwoods. And if you'll pardon my saying so, they don't scare me a lick. So why ain't you just move along 'fore somebody decides to pluck that lil' hatchet out your dainty grip and put it to a finer purpose."
I killed them all and laughed.

Failure and... Death?

So, partway through my second meander through Darkwood Forest, I decided to jump into a dark tunnel that I found inside a hollow tree trunk (getting some mileage out of Yaztromo's "Rope of Climbing" in the process). Because, why not, that dang old hammerhead's just as likely to be down there as anywhere else.

What I found instead was a underground society of mute, wizened little men who grow green- and red-topped mushrooms.

In a twist ripped from today's headlines, it is revealed these fellows are all CLONES.
After decapitating one of the CLONES to the general indifference of its peers, I yelled at two of them to give me some green-topped mushrooms before realizing that they weren't going to respond, and  helping myself, ripped great fistfuls of green mushrooms from the floor, forcing them into my slavering mouth. Truly a defining moment - my thuggish protagonist bellowing impotently for these tiny emaciated men to bring him some mushrooms is, for me, one of the book's enduring images.

Wandering upstairs from the mushroom cavern bought me a brief encounter with some military-caste CLONES who presented little challenge. Waiting one landing up however, was the local swinging dick:

A FIRE-DEMON: That'd be gouts of white hot flame shooting from his nostrils, I suppose.
This balrog-wannabe may have worn out the artist's pencil with all that shading but he didn't wear out my god-given talent for slaughter as I put him down despite his SKILL of 10 and annoying extra rules about hitting you with a whip. I plucked his crown from his head as he crumbled to ashes beneath it and stood there toying with the thing as I contemplated a previously unnoticed "magnificent throne", flanked by two grovelling CLONES. Feigning nonchalance, the book then asks if you would like to maybe sit on the throne or, gee I dunno, put the crown on your head...?

So, duh, that's pretty obviously a big old TRAP, baited with the empty trappings of power. But, I had to ask myself - what would a murdering son-of-a-bitch really do in this situation? Answer - GO FOR THE GLORY. And so, humming  "Princes of the Universe" under my breath, I ascended the steps to the throne, sat down, and donned that fabulous crown.

Two things happen when you do this. One is that you suddenly have a telepathic link with the CLONE slaves and, in a surpassingly odd detail, they ask you what you would like them to do with the latest crop of red-topped mushrooms. The other thing that happens is that you turn into a FIRE DEMON (oops). In that instant, your adventure ends as you embark on a rewarding new career - supervisor at the mushroom farm. I can't help but feel that the crazy bastard would've been more satisfied with his crown and the eternal adulation of mindless thralls than whatever grudging thanks he might've received for retrieving the damn hammer, so I think of this ending as "the psychopath's 400".

Oh, and for what it's worth, let me point out that I had at least found the hammer handle by this point - one of the GOBLINS still had it on him, but he'd been gimped by a CAVE TROLL... can you guess how I got the handle back? That's right, I murdered them both.

An unconventional household.


Another alarming result that throws into doubt everything I thought I knew about Ian Livingstone and his penchant for SKELETONS. Nonetheless, I still predict that when the full accounting is done, there will be an average of at least three or four SKELETONS per gamebook across the series.

Anyway, since the "Forest of Doom" SKELETON Report is another fizzler, I present instead:


And here's your host: Christopher Atkins' loin-cloth from the Columbia Pictures feature presentation "The Blue Lagoon"

Bear in mind that I am being pretty stringent in my criteria here - were I to count every goblin or other stock fantasy humanoid in this book depicted swanning about with a scandously short tunic somehow clinging to their bare and spindly thighs the tally would be considerably greater.

I counted the CENTAUR as one - you've met him already. Here are four more contenders, each quite grotesque in their own special way.

And finally, number 6 is my personal favourite, "The Strategically Placed Wave-Shaped Rock":

FISHMAN plays it coy.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, I have to say that I didn't really like "Forest" very much. The setting felt bland and disjointed. The plot is sparse, and such story as there is makes little sense.  The items felt like a wasted opportunity - you are always asked "do you have item X", and never given any chance to try out different items (compare "Citadel" in which the fiendish Steve Jackson delighted in giving you opportunities to waste both your items and your spells). And when you arrive at Stonebridge without the hammer, while the option to go back to the beginning is welcome, it didn't really work since you can keep stumbling onto encounters that you've already experienced. All up, below par. I'm hoping for better in subsequent books.

And At Last, An Admission Of Guilt

Guess what - I'VE BEEN PLAYING COMBAT IN THESE BOOKS STRAIGHT-UP WRONG.  As pointed out by helpful reader uforesearcher, I've been rolling one die to determine Attack Strength instead of two. Basically this increases the random element in combat and means I shouldn't have skipped all the boring GOBLIN fights in "Warlock". I'd already played through "The Forest of Doom" by the time I was alerted to this error, so I guess I'll be playing the dang things properly starting from the next book, our first foray into sci-fi, the notoriously difficult "Starship Traveller"...