Well, we made it.
My feelings on this book are decidedly mixed. There was much to be impressed by, but also some baffling gamebook design decisions which really served to drag the overall package down.
First, the good.
The overall concept and structure of the adventure was well-conceived and executed. The idea of dashing to reach a city that would soon be attacked by enemy forces is a good one, and provided a compelling source of driving motivation for the reader.
The approach to Tahou was interesting, with numerous opportunities to be distracted or waylaid. Many of these encounters, although superficially interesting, didn’t provide Lone Wolf with any meaningful practical assistance. That, in my opinion, is a good thing. There are certain gamebooks where you basically know, in advance, that you have to stop at every single opportunity because most, if not all, such encounters will yield necessary plot coupons (Ian Livingstone, I’m looking none-too-subtly in your direction).
Joe Dever, with his limits on Backpack / Special Items capacity, and his cornucopia of possibly useful items to be found, makes the player really consider which ones may or may not be subsequently helpful (and whether Sacks of Silver should be left by the roadside).
The encounters with various soldiers and refugees helped to give the impression of a living, breathing world, where not all so-called NPCs were obvious villains or allies. They had their own path to follow, where Lone Wolf was not the centre of their particular universe.
Upon reaching Tahou, the book gamely attempted to give the impression of a city under siege where Lone Wolf wasn’t automatically treated as the saviour. The different ways that your character could either get imprisoned or hunted were (generally) thoughtfully written and interesting.
From a game-play perspective, the majority of the book was well-constructed. The introductions to many gamebooks promise that the book is ‘beatable’, no matter how low your stats, once you discover a ‘true’ path.
For most of The Cauldron of Fear, this was actually a fair summary. Once the player knew which encounters were ‘necessary’, you could reach the city with a 50% chance of having no fights at all. Once you were underground (however you may have gotten there), the vast majority of potential fights could be avoided with clever tactics or the risk of death minimised.
Now, for some of the not-so-good.
Before I move to the Kimah-sized elephant in the room, I’ll just also mention the practical difficulties of the betrayal of Lone Wolf by Senator Chil. Despite the prophetic warnings, there was no way whatsoever for Lone Wolf to avoid the consequences of having his support rope cut. Even the skill of Divination served merely to give to a few seconds warning of the about-to-happen actions, with no actual practical benefit.
You would think that there should be been some opportunity for skills such as Divination (with regard to anticipating events) or Huntmastery (to negate the effects of the fall) would have been relevant.
Alternatively, Lone Wolf could have been given the opportunity to, say, pay one or more of the workers a sum of Gold Crowns to ensure that no funny business would occur at the surface level.
This is particularly annoying because of the instadeath possibilities once Lone Wolf fell into the freezing water.
Zakhan Kimah. I really don’t know what Joe Dever was thinking, apart from “I’m going to make this encounter so flipping mathematically difficult that players will curse me for constantly asking about me writing a harder adventure”
I mean, if you have the Sommerswerd, you have +8 to your Combat Skill. Let’s assume a +3 for Weaponmastery, and +2 for miscellaneous (Shield, Helmet etc). With a base Combat Skill of 10-19, that means Lone Wolf’s total Combat Skill at the time of the battle is going to be in the range of 23-32, bearing in mind that the Zakhan is immune to Mindblast and Psi-Surge. Also consider that you automatically lose 5 Endurance right before the combat starts.
Despite all this, Joe Dever gave, on the original published version, this adversary a Combat Skill of a mind-boggling 44!!! Even the Project Aon draft has 39! Given the above equations, the average Lone Wolf will have, at the time of this encounter, a Combat skill of around 28, meaning that the worst possible Combat Results table will almost always be used.
Even without the Sommerswerd (and with the Psychic Ring), the Zakhan’s Combat Skill is 30, which gives roughly the same differential, given that the Sommerswerd is worth an extra 8 on Combat Skill.
A preferable way to handle this combat would have been to use the model of the final battle in Island of the Lizard King by Ian Livingstone. In that encounter, the ‘final boss’ is only vulnerable to a ‘Fire Sword’ and is terrified of monkeys. There are several possibilities :
- If you have both a Fire Sword and a monkey, there is a combat of moderate difficulty.
- If you have only a Fire Sword, there is a combat of very high difficulty.
- If you have only a monkey, you have a chance of scaring the Lizard King so much that he drops his sword, giving you a chance against him, with failure meaning instadeath.
Plug the Sommerswerd and the Psychic Ring into the above equation, and I think you would have achieved a far more equitably constructed final test.
And the Dagger of Vashna loophole was just weird. How many players would have played Book 4 and not Book 2?
Next : What looks like another underground test, with ‘The Dungeons of Torgar’.