Scorpion Swamp – Conclusions

Well, I was warned I suppose. In Scorpion Swamp, Fake Steve Jackson delivered a quite painful experience.

Two main criticisms come to mind after making my way in and out of this horrible maze. Firstly, the structure of the book wasn’t fun to work with. I can applaud the attempt to try something different to the standard linear approach, but this map system where everything is basically gridded out spoils the immersion entirely. It might not be obvious from reading the text of my playthrough, so here’s my map to show what I mean.

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Every clearing was given a number and you can progress back and forth as you please, leading to areas that you may or may have not already visited, containing encounters which may or may not still be waiting for you. Aside from the messing around this entails, the biggest problem was that there is no real flow of story. Every area is an entirely separate entity, its like working your way through a series of independent challenges rather than going on an epic quest through a deadly swamp. Only on a few occasions did things link together, the book would have benefited greatly from ditching this and building up a continuous narrative. The multiple quest idea was a nice one though and I could see that working out over multiple playthroughs, although it could also be said that it just means you’re even more likely to be going on a wild goose chase than usual.

My second major criticism was pretty obvious from my read-through – the huge amount of stat draining going on with seemingly little in the way of regaining stats other than spells. I can stomach losing Skill by failing a test or making a bad decision, but simply for walking into an area, such as the fear flowers section, it’s just not fun. I like a challenge, but I’d like to be beaten by something clever as opposed to practically unavoidable penalties. To finish the book with 3 Skill is just crazy. It’s almost like Fake Steve Jackson didn’t understand how to balance the stats through a reading at all.

Despite the moans though, there’s a few things I wanted to point out that I thought were quite cool, firstly in the art department. Duncan Smith has a few pieces in this book that I wasn’t keen on at all, but I absolutely loved a few in particular that I didn’t encounter on my playthrough. Firstly, the Master of Spiders… had I used a Curse spell on him, he’d have turned into a part spider, which produced this rather dark piece of artwork.

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The second appears to be linked to a sequence of events in which you have killed Grimslade and an evil shadow comes to claim his soul and destroys his tower, killing you in the process. I think this might be one of my favourite pieces of art from the books so far. Simplistic, but very bad-ass.

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And before I leave this one alone, an early discussion with Grimslade could have resulted in him summoning a demon to kill me so he could claim my magic ring. At Skill 16 Stamina 12, is this the most powerful enemy in a Fighting Fantasy book? I could do some research, but sometimes it’s fun to wildly speculate! Regardless, that’s a pretty insane Skill score however you look at it…

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Scorpion Swamp – Part 3

Having left the froggy ones in a rage at my failed attempt to slay their master I headed back to the crabgrass field and took the as yet unexplored southerly route. The path was lined with spiders webs and took me down into the next clearing, covered with even more webbing, and in the middle was a large silver pavilion  in the middle of which sat a tall, bearded old man. My ring was going crazy with the level of sheer evil in the area, the silver amulet around the mans neck telling me that this was the Master of Spiders. Quite a bad-ass illustration too from Duncan Smith.

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Bearing in mind the words of the Mistress of Birds I leaped straight into attacking him, despite my dwindling physical state. Thankfully, he wasn’t actually very strong at 9/6 and I used a little Luck to finish him off quickly as his poisoned wand would do an extra point of Stamina damage for each hit. I don’t know why he would use a wand in hand-to-hand combat, but he’s the Master of Spiders, he can do what he likes. As I took the amulet from his dead body, a spark flew from it and lit up the virtual cocoon of spiderwebs surrounding the clearing and the area started to burn to the ground.

Continuing to fill in some gaps in my map, I headed back north from where I met the orcs and took the easterly path which brought me to a pleasant looking glade, a sandy shore surrounded a crystalline pool of water. Trying to be cautious, I stood back and observed for a while before investigating the pool itself. A lizard wandered over and took a drink and that was all the proof I needed, so I went and had a drink from the water to regain 3 Stamina points. At last! I think I had a huge 8 Stamina at this point!

West was my next destination as I worked my way back up to the crocodile infested river I steered away from earlier. In this next clearing though, it was scorpions out to kill me, dozens of them, tiny little ones though. A Luck test and a Stamina test later and I was hopping over them to continue moving north without having to try and fight them off. My Luck was getting a bit low at this point too, must have been around 4 or 5 looking at my Adventure Sheet!

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I had now made my way back up to the banks of the Foulbrood River, only now I had managed to find a bridge! A rickety old one at that, but it held up and took me to the opposite shore where I was face to face with a giant tree. Atop the tree sat a huge nest, which I could only presume belonged to the similarly huge eagle. Now, I was asked if I had the Bird Amulet… I had a fake Bird Amulet… that counts, right? I decided that it did. My hovvering eagle friend decided to leave me alone in the wake of this turn of events, so I was able to continue on my merry way to the east.

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It was about time I got shafted again it seemed, so of course this particular clearing was full of quicksand that I couldn’t react to until it was too late. My Luck had run out on this occasion as I failed my roll and had to remove my armour to ensure that I could pull myself out of the quicksand. Through this I lost 2 Skill points and also 2 off my Initial Skill… so now I was down to a Skill of 6. Oh god. Nothing attack me. Please.

Moving on further north, I had my next encounter, this time it was a giant. Thankfully my ring was telling me he was friendly enough, but he was trying to be Gandalf, giving it some ‘YOU MAY NOT PASS’. I attempted to reason with the big man and a fairly amusing turn of events transpired as he started to cry. Apparently someone had stolen his handkerchief and he was worried that his wife would be mad at him, apparently it was red and very beautiful. Sounds a bit like the ‘cloak’ I took from the dead thief… and lo and behold, it was his hankie! He was delighted and offered me some advice, telling me that to the north and to the west are some gardens where the Master of Gardens might be found. We parted company much richer for the experience.

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Again taking the northerly path, I emerged in another clearing of low shrubs where I soon became aware that two large wolves had their eye on me. Not having managed to get the Master of Wolves to come out of his shed, I had no option but to fight my way out of this one. Handily I managed to react quickly and took the head off one of the wolves and so I was only left with one at 7/6 to fight, he took a bit of Stamina off me, leaving me with 4 Stamina but a wonderful luck roll finished him off and took me down to 3 Luck. Some berries in the nearby shrubbery caught my eye and I took a chance at eating some, the gamble paid off too giving me an extra 2 Stamina and 1 Luck! Not sure how I feel about this style of illustration though… actually I do, it sucks.

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This particular avenue was a dead-end though, so a little back-tracking took me to a cross-road just west of the giants location. Following his advice to find the Master of Gardens I went north from here through a narrow, boulder strewn path that quickly built up with fog. Soon emerging from this fog was a ranger. He asked me my business and I told him of my quest for Grimslade, which was obviously going to end in tears, but somehow I managed to pass a Luck test and got him to tell me I was on the right path for the Master of Gardens.

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Taking the easterly path, the vegetation appeared well tended to and eventually turned into a beautiful garden which was being tended to by the amulet wearing Master of Gardens. I pulled out my last spell, Illusion, to laughably poor results. My spell disguised me as a plant, right before the Masters eyes. Brilliant. As he approached me I made a snatch for the amulet, the motion instantly breaking the illusion spell. Knowing I needed that amulet to get the target of three Grimslade had set me, I launched into attack. Confused and puzzled, the Master cried out ‘Why are you attacking me?’, grabbed a sickle and motioned his hands to cast a spell. This spell cost me 3 Skill points.

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It was at this exact moment where I’d had enough. My characters stats now read 3/6/3. I have had a little look through Out of the Pit and pretty much the only creature I am now stronger than is a Jib-Jib. So, against the 7/10 Master of Gardens, for the first time ever, I used the option to Escape the combat and headed back South. I headed back South hard and fast, all the way back to Grimslades tower.

Instead of menacing evil, this time Grimslade had an air of eagerness about him, he wanted the spoils I had just gone out and earned for him. Boy is he gonna be disappointed! One amulet short of the three he asked for and one of the amulets I do have is fake! His expression darkened but thankfully he didn’t seem to notice the fake amulet, he muttered something about it being ‘better than nothing’ and gave me 250gp. Now this was considerably lower than what we’d agreed upon per amulet, but at this point, I couldn’t care less, I just wanted this to end. I took the gold, walked away, ignored the options to take issue with him, attack him… I wanted to go! I left the tower with my tainted gold; I’d killed unicorns, left myself half dead, assisted a horribly evil wizard and not particularly enjoyed any of it.

Thank christ, my adventure was over.

 

Scorpion Swamp – Part 2

We had stumbled across a majestic beast at the end of our last meeting, a unicorn, badly injured from a previous encounter was licking its wounds in a clearing. So presented with this beautiful animal at its lowest ebb, I saw the opportunity to find myself an ally and perhaps some magical reward, rejected that opportunity and killed the thing, taking its horn as my prize. It may have had a Skill of 11, but its Stamina of 4 meant it didn’t put up much of a fight. Before whatever it was that left the unicorn near-dead returned, I got the hell out of there. Didn’t really look too badly hurt in the picture though…hmm, maybe the sight of a badly maimed unicorn would have been a bit much I guess.

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So, this is where the book started to annoy me.

My exploration had brought me to a field of Fear Flowers, a type of flower that produces fear-inducing pollen. Minus 1 Skill for looking at some flowers, truly an epic encounter. I figured that I’d best just get the hell out of there and so ran past the flowers to the north. Minus 1 Skill for running past the flowers. Oooo-kay…. Down to 8 Skill now for those not keeping track.

Calming myself down after negotiating my way around the terrifying flowers, I noticed that the environment was changing to more of a jungle than a swamp. A parrot flew down from the trees and addressed me, wanting to know my business with the Mistress of Birds. Reminded of the quest Grimslade had sent me on, I smelled an amulet, so I asked to meet her. Surrounded by all manner of eagles, owls, herons and other winged, feathery creatures, the Mistress of Birds greeted me in a pleasant tone and my ring told me she was indeed friendly. Choosing not to be a bastard, I straight up asked if I could have her amulet. Knowing where the amulet was heading, she declined, but as I had been decent about it, she made a perfect replica of her amulet which I could present to Grimslade. Now I was fairly concerned at this point that Grimslade was powerful enough to realise he’d been given a fake, but for now it’ll do. The Mistress also told me that of her other ‘Master’ brothers in the swamp, should I encounter the Master of Spiders I should kill him instantly for he is pure evil.

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From here, my only option for progress was to go back past the Fear flowers to where I encountered the unicorn. Minus 1 Skill point for running past the flowers again. At this point I made a stand. No. I had no option here, I’m not losing yet another Skill point to the same encounter, I’m barely half-way and I’m practically crippled as it is! So yep, still 8 Skill. Heading north from the unicorn carcass I arrived at a river bank, the Foulbrood River teeming with crocodiles before me. Having already used my ice spell to bridge a water course earlier and having a dwindling Stamina score, I stuck to the river bank and headed east which led me up a small cliff overlooking the river below.

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Still not fancying a piece of a crocodile infested river, I turned back south into the swamp again and soon found a man having a lovely picnic, a man which the illustration would have me believe is Irish. As he cut up his cheese and invited me to join him underneath the tree he was seated at, my ring burned hot and I interpreted this to mean he was a thief and attacked him without warning. A little tougher than I anticipated at 10/9, I did come out on-top with some excellent Luck rolls, although my Stamina was now a rather shabby looking 6. Of his items, the only thing worth taking was a red cloak, although the text did note that I left ‘munching a bit of cheese you found in his picnic basket…‘. Erm, hello? Can I have some Stamina for that? Please, just 1…? Oh screw you, Fake Steve Jackson.

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Further filling in the hole in the middle of my map, I headed further south and discovered what appeared to be the remains of a violent battle; ground torn up, bloody stains and broken arrows littered the clearing. Taking my chances, I decided to scout around the clearing a little for supplies, I mostly found an abundance of dead swamp orcs, anything useful had already been taken. One body of a human did however have a fetching looking golden medallion in the shape of a magnet, so I swiped that for myself.

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I continued east from here to find the local plant-life was after me again, crab-grass was this time trying to have its way with me. It was time for my Withering spell to get used, and with a click of my fingers, I assume, the crabgrass was dust. All that was left was scorched lettering that stated ‘Beware of orcs!’.

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Moving east again, you’ll never guess what I encountered next? Orcs! Presumably these were the same guys that were responsibly for the massacre a few clearings ago as I was under a hail of arrow fire as soon as they caught sight of me. It seemed though that the magnet shaped amulet I had picked up was not that good a find though as it did in-fact attract arrows. A lucky Luck test though meant that the amulet had been kept in my backpack rather than around my neck and so I only lost 1 Stamina. Taking to melee combat, the three orcs were nothing to worry about and the three were slain without much difficulty, which was handy as I was now down to 5 Stamina. On their bodies all I was able to find was a couple of gold pieces and a crude map of the area that had a picture of a frog to the south of my current location. South it is then.

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Frogs were all I could hear as I walked to the south, proper Paul McCartney stuff, lots of water pools and giant mushrooms littered the area, including one huge mushroom with a man-frog thing squatted on top of it, grinning at me in the way only a man-frog can. I had already spied the amulet around his neck before he announced himself as Master of Frogs. He didn’t appear to be hostile and I kept the true nature of my quest to myself and given my current lack of physical attributes, I tried to talk him into giving me his amulet. I cooked up a story about being in the service of Baron Sukumvit of Fang and was on the look-out for new beasties for his Deathtrap Dungeon. He told me the story behind the Masters, which was not especially interesting, so I pretended to wander off. When I was out of sight, options now limited, I took the brilliant tactical decision to just charge at him with my sword. Being a man-frog, he was somewhat more agile than myself and simply hopped away, ordering his froggie pals to attack, but before they could, I was out of there.

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Two amulets have slipped through my grasp and a fake one sits in my bag; Grimslade will not be happy at this rate.

 

 

Scorpion Swamp – Part 1

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#8

Scorpion Swamp

The journey begins with the typical detail that the hero of the story is an adventurer looking for trouble. Scorpion Swamp is dangled as a treasure-laden carrot in front of us, but despite it’s awful inhabitants, the means of which to navigate the mists is what claims most visitors lives, leading them in circles until they die of exhaustion or worse. As luck would have it though, a solution soon presented itself. Whilst walking along the Kings highway, I took on the role of good samaritan, offering a crumpled, dusty old woman on the roadside a drink of water. Blessing my kindness, it appeared that there was more to the woman than met the eye as my reward was a magic ring. Seems this ring offered me two new powers, I would be able to sense whether a person was friendly or hostile towards me, I would also be constantly aware of which direction was north. So, after that rather contrived means of dispelling the main threat of the swamp, it became my destination.

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Fenmarge was the nearest settlement to the swamp and so of course, I strode boldly in, telling folks of my plans and was quite forcibly told I was an idiot for even thinking it and was going to die. Little did they know about my ring… As they muttered and shook their heads, one man stepped over to me and told me his name was Gronar, a farmer who seemed to be willing to give me a chance. We sat at a table together and he suggested that going into the swamp without a specific goal  in mind. Here we find our way into the choice of quest in Scorpion Swamp, Gronar tipped me off to three men in Fenmarge that were in need of reaching into the depths of the swamp, but were unable to due to the danger it presents. Selator, Grimslade and Poomchukker were their names, with good, evil and neutral being their respective alignments. Despite Poomchukkers glorious name, I decided to bow to Satan and paid Grimslade a visit, my ring burning hot with warning.

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Behind the huge iron door at the front of his tower, the skeletally thin Grimslade stood waiting for me and said he knew everything about me and the snivelling fool Gronar that sent me. He wanted to know exactly why I thought I could help someone such as him. Keeping quiet about the ring, I told him that I feared nothing and gave him a smile. He retorted by making his stone goblin statue attack me, which is a novel response to give. My sword proved ineffective against stone, so much to Grimslades amusement, I hacked the leg off a table and its crushing blows smashed the goblin statue to pieces. Reasonably happy, he gave me a healing potion and described the job he needed me to do. It seemed this arcane master had some rival wizards move in, and oddly, move into the swamp itself. Each of them had a silver amulet that was the source of their power and as a collector of such things, Grimslade wanted to get his hands on them and told me to bring back at least three of them, for which I would receive 500g each. To assist me, I was given six spell gems, which allowed me to pick six one-use spells, some of which could be ‘evil’ based on my allegiance with Grimslade. I went for Stamina, Ice, Fire, Withering, Illusion and Fear.

Standing on the southern edge of the swamp, my 10/21/9 hero was ready to leave. Hopping over a few insect ridden pools, I decided to map the area like I explore areas in video-games such as Baldurs Gate and Diablo, by going around the edge and filling in the middle later as much as possible. Of the north, east and west options I elected to explore to the east first and discovered a hollow tree.

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Thinking it would be best not to have a little sit down on the rocks, I investigated the hollow and of course, our wandered a big angry bear, which managed a hit or two before being killed. Finding nothing os value in its den, I continued east. A small pool was in the next clearing and on my arrival, brown, rubbery tentacles appeared from the water and I was under attack from a very aggressive looking Pool Beast. The fella on the cover in-fact. Electing to keep my spells for now, I engaged him with my sword and he did manage to do a bit of damage as at 8/10, he had a reasonable amount of Stamina to wear down. But wear it down I did and cut out the violet jewel embedded in the creatures forehead.

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The only path to follow was back to the west, past the dead bear, hopped over the insect pools again and this time, over to the west to find a log cabin. Outside sat a couple of growling wolves which prompted the emergence of a burly, bearded man from within the cabin. He wore an amulet that resembled what Grimslade was after… this guy certainly didn’t look like a wizard though. He gruffly shooed me away, but knowing I needed that amulet, I persisted with some magic. I used my Fear spell which sent him dashing inside, leaving me to fight his two wolves who soon met their end. Unfortunately this wizard, who frankly looks like one of the Bee Gees, had in his fear-stricken state, magically sealed himself and his amulet inside the cabin. Bugger.

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Taking the northern route from here, following the western edge of the swamp, my progress was blocked by a deep section of swamp with clear signs of movement below the surface. Having taken a fair bit of damage so far, I elected to use some more magic and used an Ice spell to construct a bridge over to the other side of the deep water. My bridge took me into a clearing of trees and this soon became a clearing of trees attempting to take my life. See, these were in-fact Sword Trees and every branch ended in a little hand swinging a sword. Where a tree gets a sword I don’t know, let alone a number of them.

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Getting a little trigger happy with my spell-casting, I decided to torch them with a Fire spell. Fake Steve Jackson had other ideas though and the spell only did 2 Stamina damage and then sent me into combat against them, which at 9/12 before my immense fire damage was an encounter that took its toll. I did hack the things down though and went on my merry way to the north with a handfull of their seeds.

Dipping down, the path took me into a grassy clearing where I saw what seemed to be a horse, but on turning to face me, it revealed itself to be a Unicorn, and a badly wounded one at that. Would I save it or hack it to bits? That’ll be for next time…

Nightmarish creatures lurk in the slimy depths of Scorpion Swamp!

 

My copy of Scorpion Swamp for this read-through comes courtesy of eBay and is in generally pretty good nick. Seems there are finds still to be had in the wild, although I’m starting to understand that as I get further into the series, I’ll have less and less success in finding them. I know I could have a small collection of Citadel of Chaos’ and Forest of Dooms by now. Having said that though, I have found a few later books out there, so I’m not giving in on the humble charity shop just yet.

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Scorpion Swamp brings us to what I believe is the first appearance of the word ‘PRESENT’ on the cover. Now, I always knew I would learn a few things along the way in doing this blog and you, dear, learned reader, will probably roll your eyes and say ‘Really?’, but I had no idea that the Fighting Fantasy books had writers other than Livingstone and Jackson. My mind was blown, younger-me never appreciated what the word ‘present’ represented. And then I discover there are two Steve Jacksons and the fake Steve Jackson wrote this one. Down is up, black is white and Guillermo Del Toro didn’t direct The Orphanage… But having recovered from this news, I have been able to dust myself down and carry on.

Perusing the internet, I discover that this isn’t exactly the most popular Fighting Fantasy book ever written, FF Reviews Archive stoking my enthusiasm with quotes such as ‘This is the book that turned me off buying FF books for 13 years’ and ‘I cannot complete this book. Not because it is so difficult, but rather because it is so boring’. I probably shouldn’t go there before I read a book again. Someone did slate City of Thieves though, so what do they know?

My own memories of this book are pretty much restricted to being in Keighley, up in my home of Yorkshire with my mum, she’d just bought me a copy of this here Scorpion Swamp and I was flicking through it in a shoe shop, horrified that I was expected to draw a map for this one as I’d never bothered before. I cannot confirm if the shoes were for me or not, apologies.

Apparently, this is how you draw a map –

The mapping is an important aspect of the book though as the introduction of a new writer brought new ideas. Areas may be re-visited in this title, which in theory I guess adds a certain logic to adventure, I always thought if I really was the adventurer in these books, nothing would stop me doubling-back and checking unexplored areas. How it works in practice, I guess we’ll find out. There also appears to be a choice of three quests to go on ( good, neutral and evil) with corresponding spells to cast based on your choice of alignment. I don’t remember any of this at all! But still, let’s not spoil too much, I guess I should get reading…