It all started with the ‘Forest of Doom’. The stacks of books, repeated delivery of Amazon parcels, reviews, tweets and recommendations, my love of books took root thanks to Fighting Fantasy. Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone paved the way to Tolkien and Eddings, Gemmell and Pratchett. From there, Eco, Atwood and Murakami. Solo gamebooks gave way to roleplaying games. The paths through the forest led to a passion for books and an affinity for unusually shaped dice.
But times change. Role playing games and the emergence of the home computer afforded more control, more excitement. Shallow characters (‘YOU’) and linear plots can only hold attention for so long in the face of creating an entire new persona and being able to go anywhere, do anything. With World of Warcraft, Warhammer and Dungeons and Dragons, do we need game books?
To be honest, I hadn’t even considered the question until a rogue tweet passed across my Twitter feed. Something called Destiny Quest hoped to pull the gamebook into the twenty-first century. It promised multiple pathways, in depth character development and kick ass magical items. A self-published version of the book had garnered excellent reviews, and the Gollancz reboot looked impressive. Curiosity piqued, I sent an email in response to a pre-order competition, and then something unexpected happened.
It turns out that ‘Legion of Shadow’ is written by an old school friend. This was a nostalgia trip with a personal touch. In many ways I am not surprised. Mike Ward always had a passion for storytelling and for gaming. In our gaming sessions, whilst most of us were obsessed with finding treasure and beating the crap out of things, Mike was concerned with character development and story progression. If something more interesting than a dungeon crawl was happening, then Mike was at the heart of it. That he was behind the Destiny Quest series was a delightful surprise yet made perfect sense.
Legion of Shadow is a book with ambition. At over 600 pages (and 900+ separate entries), it is perhaps a little daunting, but its simple game mechanic means that within ten minutes you should be up and running. The production values of the hardback are excellent. The artwork is of a very high standard; at the centre of the book are several colour plates including three glossy maps that are pivotal to adventures.
The other gamebooks I’ve played have all been a single continuous narrative that start from entry 1 and run through in one direction to the end (traditionally up to 400 in early FF novels). The narrative of LoS is broken into three acts. Each Act is self contained and made up of a set of chapters. Chapters are colour coded to denote difficulty, and are intended to be read roughly in difficulty order to form a coherent narrative. Once you have completed all the chapters, you can try your hand at the end of Act ‘Boss Monster’. Once you’ve killed the boss, there is some more narrative description and you progress to the next Act.
From there you cannot (are aren’t supposed to) go back to the previous Act. If your character dies during a chapter, you can return to the map, try again immediately, or try a different chapter, power up, and return to attempt the failed chapter at a later date. In addition to the narrative chapters, each Act has several ‘Legendary Monsters’; single short encounters, that enable you to hone your fighting skills and improve your treasure trove.
As the story opens you have no memories of your past and a man lays dying in your arms. He has a letter inviting him to become the apprentice of a powerful ‘Grand Master of the Dawn’. You take the letter and the dead man’s sword, and begin the quest to discover who you are.
The opening Act is quite jovial in tone. Many of the adventures and quests are based in traditional children’s fairy stories and folk tales. As you might expect the introduction is gentle, and the first few quests simple to complete, but as you progress the narrative becomes darker, and real choices have to be made. Some of the choice is necessarily artificial, (for true free choice, the book would need to be four times thicker than it is already), but there are enough options to keep up a semblance of free will.
Where there reader is offered a multitude of options is in character development. The core mechanic is simple. Each character has five stats. Speed, Brawn and Magic are used to attack. Armour and Health determine how good you are at absorbing damage. All combat is resolved using at standard D6. Combatants pit their speeds against each other, and the winner then has the opportunity do to damage. Another D6 roll is added to either magic or brawn (whichever is the higher) and this total, minus the opponents armour gives the damage.
The Destiny Quest mechanic adds character variation through its equipment slots. There are eleven places to add equipment, including main hand, off hand, cloak and rings. As you progress through the game you find various items to equip that boost certain stats, and so you improve. Once an equipped item is replaced it is no longer available, so you have to evaluate carefully whether a new item is better than your existing one. Further flavour is added to items through special abilities. These are usually very powerful but only useable once per combat. They have entirely cool names such as Spider Sense, Time Shift & Patchwork Pauper
At the end of Act 1 you get the chance to choose whether to be a Warrior, Rogue, or Mage. Your choice limits some of the items you can use, and also determines which careers you can choose. Careers are the final way to flavour your character, each one giving your character new abilities. The character variations are myriad, and herein lies LoS strength and its weakness. You can easily play through the book several times, each time creating an entirely different character, but it does mean there is great deal of bookkeeping. If you were to use the character sheet printed in the book, much like the one in my old copy of Forest of Doom, it would soon be perforated by holes made by the continual rubbings out.
In general, for me, there is too much emphasis on the physical abilities of your character. Though there are many options, they are perhaps not as different as they first appear. There is also far too much combat in the books. At first it was exciting, but as characters and creatures become stronger, it takes longer and longer, and when playing on your own, repeated dice rolling can only hold the attention for so long. In the end, I abandoned combat altogether, not because I wanted to cheat, but because I have a busy life, and rarely enough time to sit down surrounded by papers, pencil and dice.
The Legen (wait-for-it) dary Monsters though a good idea in principle, and an age old one borrowed from computer games, for me, failed to excite. They add little apart from dice rolling. Tough battles that promise treasure, but little in the way of plot development. If you failed to kill them you can return and try again, but unlike a computer game, where you learn from your previous attempts, here it’s a case of keeping rolling those dice until the odds fall in your favour.
I was far more interested in the story.
For this first book in his series, Mike is a nice position. Many people who buy the book will be looking for a nostalgia trip, and the author delivers. The writing style is very immediate, and feels cinematic, you can easily visualise yourself crawling through catacombs filled with creatures or squelching through swamps, trying desperately not to wake whatever might be lurking. There are many chapters and set pieces that are borrowed from other popular fantasy stories. That is not to say LoS unoriginal, as it very much has its own slant on things, but whether it be fairy tales, vampire counts or skeleton armies, there are lots of popular themes here. There are also a few nods to Michael Moorcock which I liked, as it was Mike who introduced me to Moorcock over twenty years ago.
But you can only play homage for so long. The LoS is entertaining certainly, but I worried for the future of the series. I found the opening two acts diverting, but there was nothing to elevate it to greatness. The book was in danger of becoming a hodgepodge of staple fantasy set pieces, and lacked a unique author’s voice.
But then came act three.
The transition from two to three sets up the story for an intriguing finale. Clearly aware that he needed to turn up the heat, Mike sets fire to his reader’s preconceptions. This is a solo story, yet suddenly you are part of a small band of freedom fighters. Character interaction feels natural as you become part of crack team fighting against overwhelming odds. The action and camaraderie is extraordinarily vivid.
Act three contains a chapter that is simply mind-blowing. Here Mike shows what he is capable of creating, and it certainly bodes well for future installments. There are a number of different pathways through through, each having alternative outcomes for your character and the resistance movement you have become part of. The number of permutations is bewildering, and the complex structure must have been painstaking to put together. The chapter as whole is filled with intrigue excitement and suspense.
The book’s final act gives me great hope for the future of the Destiny Quest series. It elevates it from something that will entertain fans of the gamebook genre, to a book that is enthralling and immersive for all readers. In the final stages I couldn’t put the book down, staying up long beyond when I should have gone to bed, several nights in a row. The gamebook has much to fight against if it is going to find a place in a highly competitive market. With ‘Legion of Shadow’ Mike Ward has given the genre a +4 Broadsword with which to smite its foes. The future of the solo adventure is in safe hands.