The Cauldron of Fear

The Cauldron of Fear – Conclusion


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 :

  1. If you have  both a Fire Sword and a monkey, there is a combat of moderate difficulty.
  2. If you have only a Fire Sword, there is a combat of very high difficulty.
  3. 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’.



21 thoughts on “The Cauldron of Fear – Conclusion

  1. You put a good amount of work into these reviews, and in particular the merits and shortcomings of each book. Have you considered writing a gamebook yourself? Does it already exist?
    If so, where could we find volume 1 of the SmurfWar Chronicles, “Burning Crescendo”, in which YOU play the troubadour O’War, who with his or her musical sidekicks, must prevent (though a combination of secondary school mathematics and constructive refereeing) the necromancer known as the Trumpeter from performing the SYMPHONY OF DEATH and sacrificing Princess D’Elpy?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. 1. I have not written a gamebook. 2. I have to say that I don’t have any plans in the short-to-medium term to write on. With my job and my family, I can’t really justify the time it would take, in addition to this blog.


      1. Well that’s confirmed it for me: Aussiesmurf reveals long-term epic gamebook plans- working title “Smurfcery Parts I-IV”

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Hey, have you heard of a gamebook called Starship Deadfall, by Dean Moodie? The first book of a new series called Bionic Agent? I haven’t been able to find out much, but it appears to be from Australia, possibly self-published.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Fenrir Wolfganger, defending unpopular Gamebook writing decisions since Warbringer.

    I’d view this book as an advertisement for Nexus. It gets you out of prison, turns a 500 metre fall into a freezing lake from near certain death to an inconvenience and lets you be the hero in the burning hospital. If you don’t have it things become… more awkward.

    I also love the feel of your being caught up in events and other people viewing you as a bit part in their adventure.

    But then there’s your criticism of the Zakhan. Him striding through the gate not even noticing the soldier being immolated is stuck in my memory, the ensuing fight is not (but the Gourgaz from Flight is). I don’t know why and can only agree with your comments on the maths of such a fight.

    Your Honour, the defense has nothing to say in defense.

    Roll on Torgar, will we meet old friends and enemies?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. As for who would have played Book 4 without playing Book 2, that was me. Alas, I was at the mercy of the newsagents of country Victoria, where gamebooks weren’t so easy to find; I never even saw a copy of Book 2 until I was 15 or 16, some 7 years into my Lone Wolf fandom. So yeah, I had some gaps in my collection, and the Dagger of Vashna was a lifeline for me when playing Cauldron of Fear.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. It makes sense in terms of the story that Zakhan Kimah would be so powerful, and that Lone Wolf’s odds of defeating him would be less than good. No one ever said saving Magnamund was going to be easy. 🙂

    And from an economic standpoint, the player might feel they are getting more value for their dollar having to replay the books many times instead of them being “too easy”.

    However, what makes for a more realistic or more plausible story doesn’t necessarily make for the best possible game. As a game, the fact that the book is very difficult to win without prior knowledge is unsatisfying and breaks the mimesis and realism of the story.

    With an average starting combat skill of 14-15, plus Shield (2 points), Sommerswerd (8 points), Silver Helmet found in Caverns of Kalte (2 points), Weaponmastery (3 points), Lore circle of Fire (1 point), Lore circle of the Spirit (3 points), and a potion of Alether (2 points) you can be at 35 or 36 which counterintuitively actually makes you about even odds to win against a CS 39 opponent (the combat results table is biased in Lone Wolf’s favor).

    However a character starting at 10 CS would only be able to be up to 31 CS at maximum and thus likely to lose this fight even with all possible equipment and best possible choice of disciplines. And it’s not really reasonable to expect the player to have all equipment and best possible discipline combinations as that requires foreknowledge of the books.

    I like your idea of allowing the player to combine the Psychic Ring with the Sommerswerd to give them a greater bonus. At the very least the Ring could have allowed you to use Psi-Surge which would give you another 4 points of CS.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Alas, Backpack Items (into which category the potion falls) may not be carried over from Shadow on the Sand to The Kingdoms of Terror, so you’re not allowed to hoard the potion until the fights get really harsh. I was quite displeased the first time I noticed this, as I’d been banking on saving that distillate of Alether for you-know-who.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Where do you particularly get the idea that backpack items can’t be carried from Book 5 to Book 6? I reread the introduction to book 6 and it only mentions carrying over weapons, gold, and special items, but the introduction to Book 10 says the same thing, and I don’t think our intrepid smurf is going to somehow be forced to give up his backpack items between Tahou and Torgar.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Once you know about the end-of-book-7 Backpack loss, you can prepare for it by putting Items into storage at the start of the adventure. Rule tweaks which do not permit the carrying across of Backpack Items regardless are another matter.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I would say at the very least you should be allowed to put them into storage at the beginning of book 6 (for what it’s worth, the Seventh Sense software takes this view as well and permits carrying over backpack items even in “by-the-book” mode).

    But yeah, unfortunately Joe wasn’t always consistent in the wording of the rules, which leads to a lot of lawyerly 😉 debate regarding interpretation. On Earth you call this job security, right? 🙂

    Not being able to take potions from the Kai series into Magnakai definitely makes the Magnakai series a lot harder, as not only would you not have the distilled Alether available, but you also could have bought as many regular Alethers in Barrakeesh as you can carry.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Another thing not mentioned in the books – why didn’t Lone Wolf take the Orb of Death at the end of book 5? Surely leaving powerful evil artifats lying around is going to be bad and Lone Wolf knew at the end of book 4 that leaving the dagger of Vashna lying around was a bad idea so took that. Also, at the end of book 11, Lone Wolf leaves a certain traitor lying on the floor with a magical ring. Although that was in another dimension, so I suppose it’s less important there.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I always thought that the Orb of Death wasn’t there at the end of Book 5. When Lone Wolf was eavesdropping on the Darklord and the Zakhan, the Darklord mentioned that “You already have the Orb.”

      So the Zakhan already had the Orb, and there was no reason why it would be there at the Tomb when Lone Wolf faced the Darklord.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Darklord Haakon has whats called “a glowing gem” or a “glowing stone”, the Orb of Death is an Orb of “black metal”. You can grab Darklord Haakon’s stone, ww2 buffs know he only has one, but it vanishes when he does.

      Your Honour, I move that Lone Wolf be declared innocent of all charges, apart from kleptomania.

      Liked by 1 person

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