November 10, 2012 Leave a comment
“Oh god this is way harder than I remember”
Scorpion Swamp by American Steve Jackson
So, judging from the fact that everyone points it out, I’m going to assume not doing so will invoke a terrible demonic curse and/or result in my house being swallowed into the blazing depths of the earth, and I’ll instead play safe and tell you all that this was the first book in the series written by someone who wasn’t an author of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Of course, just to confuse everyone they found another person with the same name. American Steve Jackson is the one who founded Steve Jackson Games. He wrote this one, Demons of the Deep, and Robot Commando. They’re all pretty good, and I think they need to be reprinted.
Unfortunately the problem with Scorpion Swamp is that the art has never looked that good in any copy of the book I’ve seen. The art is obviously good, but the reproduction via printing is not that wonderful. So the pictures I’ve got are not amazing, being bad scans of badly printed art.
The book itself is really interesting, being one where there’s the ability to backtrack. You can walk backwards and forwards between locations. Stupendous! Also silly! On top of that there’s three different quests to choose from, all of which involve working for a wizard or merchant based wizard substitute. These wizards provide handy gems that contain single-use spells, so I’m going to get to throw some magic around. There are good spells, neutral spells, and evil spells. Hey there’s also three wizards at the start. I wonder what they’re like?
I remembered this book being pretty easy, so I gave myself a handicap and took the lowest stats. Then I died repeatedly… before getting into the bloody swamp. So, naturally, I gave up on that idea.
Equipment: Sword, chainmail (score!), backpack, magic brass ring that lets me always know where north is and also grows warm when I meet someone evil (mental note: Don’t ever visit Port Blacksand).
Onward to Adventure!
Only an idiot would go into Scorpion Swamp, because it’s impossible to find your way out once you’re in there. So naturally as soon as I get a magic ring that lets me know which way is north I decide to rampage on into the swamp… like an idiot, because it’s also full of monsters. In fact, when I get to the town of Fenmarge and tell the occupants of the tavern that I’m going to explore the swamp, sort of like this:
“Ho there, good townsfolk! I am going to explore Scorpion Swamp! Ha ha ha!”
Everyone thinks I’m mad. They point out that there’s now a bunch of wizards living in the swamp, which only makes it seem more appealing to me. I am an adventurer, after all. However, someone tells me that I should get some assistance from one of the local wizard-type people in exchange for my service as a stabber of things. This seems like a good idea. I ask who these people are. There’s the good wizard Selator, the mysterious and comically named Poomchukker, and then there’s some guy called Grimslade who lives in a tower on the edge of town. Grimslade sounds cool so I’m going to go work for him.
Unfortunately, asking directions to Grimslade’s tower involves people running away from me or making signs to ward off evil. I’m sure that’s all a misunderstanding, really. So is the fact that my magic ring starts to get hot as I approach the tower. I walk up to the door, which flies open, revealing a man who is clearly an evil wizard. Skeletal, old, black robes with glowing sigils, what do I need this magic ring for? But hey, he’s probably loaded and so I might as well see how this pans out.
“So,” says Grimslade, “what makes you think you can survive the swamp?”
“I’m an adventurer, and the swamp is full of wizards, which means the odds are on my side. Killing wizards and taking their stuff is what adventurers do!”
Grimslade responds to what I now realise was a sort of threatening thing to say to a wizard who is clearly evil by bringing a statue of a Goblin to life and having it attack me. I clobber it with the furniture, which only annoys the wizard.
“You wrecked my parlour!” cries Grimslade, apparently forgetting something. I waste no time in reminding him….
“Well this battle was your bright idea,” I reply. He flies into a rage and attacks me, and I only just manage to kill the evil wizard. This really didn’t work out so well. I grab his magic sword and get out of there, because I’m fairly certain the stench of brimstone and increasing heat from the magic ring means some bad shit is about to go down. As soon as I get a short way from the tower it explodes, which happens much more often than you would think. Hmmm, who will I work for now? I guess if evil didn’t work out so well, It’ll have to be good. Some wandering around takes me to Selator’s house, where he informs me that he needs me to find a sample of the rarest plant in the world, which has been all but wiped out by evil wizards. He gives me my choice of six spell gems. I take five miscellaneous ones and one to heal me after my adventures killing Grimslade, and then set off to the swamp.
Scorpion Swamp is pretty much as expected in the swamp department, but I notice a distinct lack of scorpions. I wander around, and eventually come into a clearing with a little signpost that bears the number 17. Sitting off to one side is someone who, judging from all the spiders swarming about, has some kind of magical spider powers.
My ring suggests he’s evil, so I do what adventurers do best and attack. The Master of Spiders goes down easily, and then his eight-legged friends come after me. I grab his magical spider controlling amulet and the fail-safe sets his body on fire. Okay, whatever, I’m out of there.
I still haven’t seen any scorpions in this swamp. But I have found he most dangerous lawn in existence, and I don’t have any choice but to chop it up. Afterwards I head off east and meet some Swamp Orcs. They are, like most Orcs, violent and prone to attacking people they meet at the least provocation in order to steal their stuff. This is disgraceful behaviour that no civilized person would ever conte- oh, yeah. Aha. Right. As for the Swamp Orcs, I take an arrow to the sword arm, and decide that this impudence warrants killing them. Unfortunately they are uncivilized and all attack me at once. All three of them. I fight valiantly, and am near death when I somehow win. I am delirious with pain and thus can’t count the gold I loot from the Orcs. After using one of my spells to heal myself, I stagger off into what should really be called Scorpionless Swamp.
It’s not so bad in the quieter parts of the swamp. There’s pools of fresh water, lovely natural scenery, scorpions… Scorpions?! A horde of them! Argh! I leap over the horrible things and make a hasty exit from the clearing I was in. Right. So all the scorpions live in a single clearing. They probably do this to lull people into a false sense of security. I run away to the north, crossing the bridge over the Foulbrood River and then coming to a clearing with a huge tree which has a large nest atop it. It also has a huge eagle watching me. Oh dear. I cautiously back away until I’m out of sight of the bird, an turn around, relieved to be away from that impending death by comically oversized variant on a normal creature. My happy moment is ruined, because right behind me was an enormous scorpion, currently busy killing a Dwarf. I figure a giant scorpion is probably a bit easier than a giant airborne adversary, kill it, loot the dead Dwarf, and travel onward, only to meet someone who claims to be a ranger.
“You don’t have two swords,” I say.
“Don’t stereotype,” he replies. “Look, I’ll ask you if you serve good or evil, will that do?”
“Okay, fine: ‘I serve the forces of good’ now do you know where this magic plant of good magicness is?”
The ranger does not, but he directs me to the home of the Master of Gardens, who is relieved. He moved into this deadly swamp because he was continually being harassed by people looking to score some weed.
He tells me that I should backtrack a bit and then head east. Naturally his awesome magical control of plants doesn’t extend to opening a path through the undergrowth. I head back the way I came, and eventually meet a giant. He’s apparently upset because he lost his handkerchief but I can’t help him there. I manage to get past and then find myself in a clearing with some wolves. I chop the head off one and the body off the other and then find the bush Selator sent me out here for. I grab a sample of the plant and get out of there. Unfortunately my backtracking is stopped when I reach the clearing that the Master of Spiders lived in, because it’s still on fire. I am forced to try and find a new way out of the swamp.
I wander around for a bit and find a clearing which contains a unicorn. It’s been injured, and is also angry at me. Since I don’t want to incur the wrath of whatever folkloric curse will crash down on me for killing a unicorn, I leave, and come across some clown eating cheese in the swamp. According to the magic ring, he’s evil. So I kill him. You know, it would be clever to make a ring like this but have it misidentify some good people as evil. That would be funny. I continue onward, finding the river, following it west, and then back south and finding the clearing the unicorn was in. It’s gone now, so I’m free to pass through.
The next open space happens to have a bunch of trees wielding swords lying in wait for travellers. Where the hell do they get the swords? I could go back and ask the Master of Gardens, but that’s much to far to walk just to satisfy my curiosity about some plants. So I kill them. I then proceed southward, freezing a stream to get across, mutter “whatever” at the Master of Wolves, and finally leaving the swamp, heading back to Selator’s house to hand over the berry from the Antherica plant. My reward for all that danger-defying, death-dealing, daring-do is… a sandwich. What the hell? I clearly should have tried working for Poomchukker.
For crying out loud. Just getting to work for Grimslade is an exercise somewhat akin to fighting Balthus Dire. But worry not, fans of evil! I will return to this book at a later time to engage in foul deeds and wicked ways, since I skipped over the best parts of the book by doing the good quest.
This book looks easy but it’s not. Mainly because you have No Food. It’s quite scary in one of these books to have no provisions. And this isn’t Starship Traveller, where it’s possible to think quickly and get through the adventure without dying. No, this is a book where you get completely slaughtered every three locations. Which is fine! Really! But with a choice of only six spells, resources are tight.
For some reason some people don’t like this book. I think it’s because there’s a difference between a book with a clear quest and one with an open field of play that you just get to explore and see how well you can cope. It’s the Morrowind to other FF book’s Neverwinter Nights (I am slowly running out of gamebooks to
die horribly in read, maybe I should review some computer games?). Exploration is the point of the missions, not a side effect of them. For some people that’s tedious. For me, it’s a nice change of pace.
Suspension of Disbelief Shattered: The sheer volume of people who hang out in the impenetrable, impassable, impossibly dangerous, inescapable swamp. How the hell does that thief spend his ill-gotten gains when he’s stuck in the swamp?
Ridiculous Battle: If you tell Grimslade about your magic ring he summons up a Demon which is Skill 16 Stamina 12. So far it’s the fourth most powerful enemy I’ve found in these books. It’s about six paragraphs in.
Victory: Okay so for completing the good mission I got “some healing potions and a hot meal” – What the hell, Selator? I just waded through the Scorpion Surprise Swamp and the best you can give me is some food? Okay sure so that probably healed me, but now how about, say, a bucket of spell gems? Healing potions are so cheap on Titan that every second adventurer has one in her backpack before she starts her quest.
What Was I Thinking? Trying to work for Grimslade. I tried FIVE TIMES. If you take too much damage fighting his Goblin Statue, there’s no way to get the job, because he just attacks you. Damn it.