Monday, 30 April 2018

Let's Play-Review the Lone Wolf Series: #1 - Flight from the Dark (Part 1)

In the days before the vast majority of the entertainment industry was aimed at nerds -  a cunning plan by the jocks to continue to steal their lunch money -  fledgling nerds had to make do with whatever they could get. The wider market just wasn't there. There's always been an healthy history of nerd culture, sure, but it's only recently that it has left its basement and started socialising (probably because its mum forced it to).

One area nerdom did thrive was in pulp fiction and pen-and-paper role-playing games. I passed many an evening reading the likes of Clark Ashton Smith, H.P. LovecraftRobert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Michael Moorcock. But there comes a point when you want to go beyond reading dog-eared sword and sorcery novels and rubbing one out to the half-naked peasant elf-girls on the cover. Which is where the pen-and-paper game (or tabletop RPG) part comes into the mix. The obvious one is the granddaddy Dungeons and Dragons, but there's also miniature wargaming (DnD found its origins in Chainmail) and adventure board games such as HeroQuest and Dark World.

The problem is these things cost serious money and require like-minded friends. Neither of which could be reliably obtained in a pre-social media childhood. Unless your dad rents you out to his friends. For those wanting to have the quintessential tabletop RPG - without someone calling themselves a 'DM' getting overly serious about how many squares a beholder can move - gamebooks were a godsend. Ostensibly they were novel-tabletop RPG hybrids. Only the author was also the Game Master. So you read it like a normal book - albeit from a weird 2nd person POV - and periodically got to make decisions about how you wanted to progress the plot. The path would often branch-off as a result of these decisions - hence how they came to be known as 'Choose Your Own Adventure' books.

If you were a kid growing up in the UK in the 80's and 90's, then you probably cut your teeth on the Fighting Fantasy and Lone Wolf series. These were gamebooks with sprawling fantasy worlds, and like the Trolls and Tunnels books of the 70's, had game rules in line with D&D style RPGs. The Lone Wolf books, by Joe Dever, were published between 1984 and 2016/7. I remember borrowing the books from the dungeon-like school library, and playing them out of order. They're such classic nerd nostalgia that I've taken on the nigh-suicidal task of playing through the entire series on this very blog.

So, let's start shall we?

Typical Sword and Sorcery scene.

Flight from the Dark
 was the first book in the Lone Wolf series (specifically Book #1 of the The Kai cycle). If you're lucky, this is just the start of a continuous 29 book adventure. Fortunately, if you do have to replay Flight from the Dark, the backstory was delivered on a single page.

You are Silent Wolf, a warrior-monk based in the Northern realm of Sommerlund, on the planet Magnamund. This being a fantasy book, Sommerland is constantly under attack from the dark forces of the Darklands. The Kai monastery teaches its adherents the skills their need to defend their lands from the Darklords. And the Darklords are pissed, mostly because the good guys forced them and their followers into a bottomless abyss during an ancient war. Chief hard bastard of the Darklords, Vasha, also got the Sauron treatment and was slain by a ponce with a fancy sword, the Sommerswerd.

All you really need to know is that the Kai are a sort of Medieval Jedi in pyjamas. And You are based in the Kai monastery. And apparently You are so well liked that You are sent out for firewood whilst all the cool monks enjoy a joyous feast.

This turns out to be a convenient spot of luck - not unlike being off ill the day the school-shooter strikes - when those bastards are massacred by the Darklords from the Darklands, and your monastery is destroyed. Realising that You are the last of the Kai, You decide to go full goth and rename yourself Lone Wolf. Like Conan, You vow vengeance against James Earl Jones (or whatever the villain is called). It is now up to You to reach the capital city and warn the king.

Look this is old-school fantasy, not Shakespeare.  Don't expect quality writing, because all you'll get is reams of purple wank. Old-school fantasy is all about men being as chiselled as Mount Rushmore; women having tits like volleyballs in vacuum; monsters which resemble Tinder rejects, and villains whom are overtly evil bastards and name themselves things like The Dark Lord of Thinking Hitler Was Right.

The real fight begins now: character creation. But first, some rules.

Map of Sommerlund, home of farmer accents and cider

The Crusades of a Critic House Rules:

  • I'm using d10's instead of the random number chart the book uses. Mainly because closing my eyes and plonking a pencil on the page feels more suited to the US deciding where to invade next than a tabletop game. But it's also for game balance. I believe the chart favours high 'rolls', so dice balance the game more.
  • I want to finish the entire series. So, in the highly probable event that I die, what I'll do is replay to the point where I died and continue from there. And if I reach my 'corpse' I'll give myself the option to recover my gear Dark Souls style. I'll just briefly sum up my replay to advise of any changes. This will allow the playthrough to be more organic and roguelike.
  • I'm following the house rules that using the Sommerswerd (the ultimate weapon) should be optional, and potions can be used any time (outside of combat) not just immediately after battle. The reason for this shall become apparent later.
  • There are quite a few rules for these gamebooks, though fortunately they're relatively simple compared to the likes of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, GURPS, or Pathfinder. In the interest of transparency I'm putting a link to the official rules here, but I'll also discuss them when needed and resolve ambiguities on the fly.
  • In order to maximise roleplaying potential, I'll generate the personality of each Lone Wolf (assuming I die) using this. I also entirely generated my starting equipment and Kai Disciplines using dice rolls. 
  • Large quantities of beer shall be consumed.

Character Creation

Combat Skill: 16 + 2 (rolled a 6 on the d10 + the starting 10 CS + 2 for Mindblast - unless enemy is immune). CS determines how good you are at fighting, so an 18 means my Lone Wolf will be a double-hard bastard.

Endurance Points: 21 (rolled a 1 on the d10 + the starting 20 EP). EP are hit points/health, so with just 21 EP my Lone Wolf is going to go down as easy as a Premier League footballer.

Kai Disciplines (Magic/Abilities) - I rolled a 10, 9, 2, 3, & 8 on the d10, so assigning them to the disciplines I'm left with: 
  • Mind Over Matter
  • Animal Kinship
  • Hunting
  • Sixth Sense
  • Mindblast
Kai Disciplines are basically abilities which will either confer some benefit, or provide the player with further options when choosing their path. There's a bit of a mixed bag here, Animal Kinship will let me communicate with animals (which comes into its own in Book II), Hunting allows me to skip meals when directed (semi-useful as I'll avoid the penalty for not having meals but it's not too hard to keep well stocked anyway), and Sixth Sense is incredibly useful and provides options. It also lets you see dead people like Haley Joel Osment. Probably.

Mindblast gives my Lone Wolf +2 to CS...unless the enemy is immune. Since I have a decent base CS (16) this isn't wholly useful but I'll take what I can get. It's nice that have that extra oomph in the morning. Lastly, Mind Over Matter telekinesis. That's like having a cock that only works when looking at pictures of Theresa May 

Starting Gear: 
  • Axe (Weapon Slot 1 - Standard Gear)
  • Quarterstaff (Weapon Slot 2 - rolled a 7 during bonus equipment acquisition)
  • Backpack (Standard Gear)
  • 1 Meal (Backpack Slot 1 - Standard Gear)
  • Leather Pouch with 5 Crowns (Standard Gear - amount of coinage is roll determined)
  • Map of Sommerlund (Standard Gear - 1 Special Slot)

Character Traits (Roleplaying element):
  • Generous
  • Reckless
  • Fun-loving
If I stick with the roleplaying aspect, I'm going be like that one guy in the bar who's had too many and is pissing away his money after becoming everyone's best friend.

"Fighting back tears, you bid farewell to your dead kinsmen..."

The Game

Section 1: The very first section, the one which is mandatory. If you skipped the backstory: winged-beasts fell and everyone died. We start facing the smouldering ruins of our former home. Dever lays it on a bit thick, to the point where the whole thing threatens to become misery-porn. The central thrust is this: Sommerlund is fucked unless we can get to the King and warn him of what's coming. I quite enjoy this set-up to the narrative. There's no fannying around: just one single goal and a feeling of being outnumbered by things which want to destroy you - it's like being a naive girl at her first bukkake.

After turning away from the ruins, we descend a steep track. At the bottom of the hill the road forks, leading to our first choice.

We can: Take the Right Path into a wood, (turn to 85)
              Take the Left Path into a wood, (turn to 275)

                                                 -- OR --

We can use Sixth Sense, (turn to 141)

I was brought up to always 'use it or lose it', so let's go to 141 and see if we can find Bruce Willis.

Section 141: Our Sixth Sense warns us that the creatures which attacked the monastery are searching the paths for survivors. Eat your heart out, Nostradamus. We can bypass the tracks entirely by going through the undergrowth of the woods.

We can: Head South, (turn to 56)

              Cut through the foliage to the Northeast, (turn to 333)

This is the first weakness of the book. It's difficult to get a grasp on location and how things exist in relation to one another. For example, is the southern route part of the undergrowth of the woods? Even with a map it's not much clearer. At any rate, I'm playing a reckless ponce so we'll go to where all the ponces are: down south (56).

Section 56: We hear a horrible scream. No, it's not someone putting a Stalaggh CD on. But a Kraan, a winged-servant of the Darklords. Dever doesn't provide a description of the creature so I choose to imagine it looks like one of those racist crows from Dumbo. We hide until it passes and go to (222). Christ, I'm sweating like a housewife watching The Great British Bake Off.

Section 222: This section is two lines long. No wonder Dever was knocking out three of these books a year. Just like R. L. Stine.

We join a forest path which diverges instantly.

We can: Take the South Fork, (turn to 140)

              Take the East Fork, (turn to 252)

                                   -- OR --

  We can use Tracking, (turn to 67)

Unfortunately, I don't have Tracking as I left my disciplines up to fate and got limited telekinesis instead. Fuck sake, fate. I'm like the kid who gets the pan lid for a weapon in Battle Royale. Let's avoid repetition - that just seems like a trap - and go east instead (67).

Section 67: We enter a clearing, confident that we're loving life and are only two days away from retirement and are fortunate to not have encountered a single enemy. On an unrelated note, in the centre of the clearing sits a group of shabby humans - two children, three men, and a woman (kinky) - talking animatedly. They are dressed in fine clothes, but their clothes are dirty and damaged and they carry their possessions in bundles over their shoulders. 

We can: Approach and Talk to them (turn to 155)
              Avoid Them
like the bloody plague (turn to 70)

This being a Lone Wolf gamebook, the only sensible option is to avoid everyone and everything you meet. It's a very cynical and Hobbesian outlook. Magnamund is the Planet of the Assholes. It's alongside Middle-Earth, Westeros, and West Yorkshire, in terms of danger and misery. You've got to play Lone Wolf literally. Take the same attitude towards needy refugees as the British Home Office. But, what's this I see before me like Macbeth and his dagger:

  • Generous
  • Reckless
  • Fun-loving

Ah, yes. I only have myself to blame. I'm playing Lone Wolf as being monumentally thick. I'll approach these shaggy figures and talk to them (155). Lords, help me...

To be continued....

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