FF55: Deathmoor

Nicholas Campbell
Leigh Loveday
Jared Milne


[Nicholas Campbell]

King Jonthane, the ruler of the city of Arion in Khul, has requested your assistance. His beautiful daughter, Princess Telessa, has been kidnapped by Arachnos the Life-Stealer. You have ventured all the way from the Isles of the Dawn, which lie well to the east of Khul, but the stormy seas mean that your journey to Arion takes longer than expected. By the time you arrive at the court of King Jonthane, he announces to you that he has entrusted someone else to the task of rescuing Princess Telessa - Fang-zen of Jitar, your arch-rival.

Well, the background to Deathmoor is rather unoriginal, and the rest of the gamebook is equally so. You must get King Jonthane's letter from Fang-zen, and once you have obtained it and left Arion, you follow one of Arachnos' minions into Deathmoor - a bitterly harsh region of Khul from which no one has survived to tell the tale. Once you enter Deathmoor, though, it really doesn't feel that way at all, thanks to the lacklustre style of writing and the incoherent mixture of settings and locations which make up the region.

Throughout the book, you feel as if the author, Robin Waterfield, couldn't be bothered to write a good gamebook. It's as if Deathmoor was written solely to fill a hole, since the number of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks that were being released by the time Deathmoor was written was only about three a year. Whereas most of the later Fighting Fantasy gamebooks in the series were innovative in that they introduced new scores to track or new rules when fighting, Deathmoor sticks to the basic system and harks back to the early years of Fighting Fantasy when SKILL, STAMINA and LUCK were the only scores to take care of. Hey, you even get a Potion of Skill, Strength or Fortune at the start of the game! Now what was the last gamebook in the series in which you got one of those?

Enough of that, though. The scenario isn't up to scratch, and unfortunately, neither is the game itself. Instant deaths are frequent, and often occur for no sensible reason. There is the almost obligatory maze, this time set in a marsh. Early on, you may meet two characters called Oiram and Igiul - those names are familiar, but it's just another example of how unoriginal Deathmoor is. There is a fairly wide variety of monsters to fight, though, and you may encounter some unfamiliar creatures that I hadn't heard of before, such as the Blackhearts (a cross between Dark Elves and Orcs), the Pelagines (amphibians with fish-like heads), the Cradoc (a monster with a Dragon's head and an Ogre's head), and the Semerle. At least you can't say that Robin Waterfield is inventive when it comes to creating monsters.

Overall, I didn't like Deathmoor. The background to the book is poor, and the setting seems to have been concocted from several locations thrown together at random. The book could have been set almost anywhere on Titan, and the book would hardly be any different for it. Take Arion; it could be substituted for almost any town or city on Titan. Worst of all is the puzzle right at the end of the book, which involves solving an equation which consists of a frighteningly complex manipulation of fractions - and the adventurer which you play is supposed to be able to work this out in his or her head? Get real! I have tried to solve it and failed, and I passed all my maths exams at school with flying colours! And if you somehow manage to solve it (or cheat, which is what I did eventually), the final paragraph consists of a meagre six lines. Deathmoor may not be the worst Fighting Fantasy gamebook, but it's a long, long way from being among the best.

Rating: 4/10




Deathmoor is one of the original Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, written by Robin Waterfield, based on the standard Jackson and Livingstone formula. It's a tale/game of high fantasy featuring a quest to rescue a beautiful princess from an evil demon hiding in a dungeon under an enchanted moor. Its monsters and NPCs are drawn from regular fantasy FF fare, including Ogres, Orc-Dark Elf hybrids, skeletons, various quasi-mutated animals and the two-headed horror drawn on the original cover, among many more. The most interestingly illustrated monsters are original marsh-beasties of various kinds, though disappointingly many interesting-sounding monsters are unillustrated.

Deathmoor is a fairly standard "explore the terrain, find the items" gamebook, mostly taking part in Deathmoor itself, with shorter sections in the city (before) and a brief and unimaginative dungeon crawl (after). It reminds me of Siege of Sardath, but with a less interesting backstory. The way the book is written and structured certainly gives the feeling of confusion and eerieness, with choices between unlocated entries in a marsh, paths which turn back on themselves and return visits to locations one left far behind. Unlike many gamebooks, it avoids being excessively linear for most of its duration, though it also avoids the easily mappable structure of books like Scorpion Swamp.

My main criticism is that this gamebook is very cruel on the reader/player. There's a lot of times when a perfectly sensible choice leads to instant death. For instance, one of the two opening options ends the adventure. Turn to the correct option, and again there's a choice where one option leads to defeat. You might encounter a monster with two heads, and face a random choice which to cut off... again, wrong choice means death. Then there's random passage turnings, deadly levers, a 1 in 2 chance of losing half your provisions near the start... It's very easy to die by making an unfortunate choice or being unlucky with a roll. There's also an extremely hard maths puzzle at the end. This cruelty to the reader is the only major difficulty, however, as there aren't too many difficult fights for a player with decent statistics.


[Leigh Loveday]

I've got a story about Robin Waterfield. Once, long ago, when I was young and naive and under the charming delusion that one day I might get an FF book of my own published, I sent a letter to Penguin asking for advice, guidelines, that sort of thing. The reply I eventually got was of course from our friend Mr. Waterfield, who in so many words told me that attempting to write a gamebook would be a waste of time and effort as the bottom had completely fallen out of the market.

Not too long after that, he wrote and published Deathmoor. And thus I determined - and I think you'll agree with me here - that Robin Waterfield smells, and has no friends.

Look, I didn't say it was a *good* story.

So much for first impressions. The only positive thing I can say about this cover, one of the worst in gamebook history, is that it prepares you for what lies within: it's muddy, halfhearted and ill-conceived. What was Terry Oakes thinking? And look at that brown rubber stamp font - did FF ever find anything uglier?

In case you're interested, the two-headed freak depicted is a Cradoc, though I'm not sure why that choice was made as it's an incidental and unrewarding encounter, with the potential to be highly aggravating on top of that. You see, what you have to do is... then there's a 50/50 chance that you'll... and there's no possible way of... never mind.

See here: 

Kidnapped princess.

What, you want more? It's a kidnapped princess. It's practically a Mario game. In fact Mario and Luigi (or a couple of close relatives) even make cameo appearances, for reasons I can't begin to get my head around. However, compulsive princess-kidnapping giant turtle Bowser has far more depth to his character than Arachnos, our villain for the mercifully brief duration of FF55, could ever dream of.

Still. Things kick off fairly well as YOU - a hardy adventurer with a certain amount of prior success, currently living the high life on the Isles of the Dawn - receive an invitation to join all sorts of other hero types in competing for the mission to rescue Princess Telessa from her mysterious captors, but by the time you've struggled across raging seas to reach Arion, King Jonthane has already bottled it and given the contract to your rival, Fang-zen of Jitar. So you decide to hit the pubs instead.

Unfortunately from there it all goes downhill, and even examining the backstory in too much detail could lead you to fall through plot holes the size of Khul. The kidnappers wanted control of Arion's gold exports, which are far from the city's only source of income - but rather than going along with that to ensure the safety of his daughter, the King hires someone to launch a rescue attempt so that he can ultimately reward them with half the kingdom, and that's only if they don't die and get the Princess killed in the process, which is by far the most likely outcome. Sounds like a plan and a half. The question of whether or not Jonthane is viewed by his subjects as a particularly *good* King never arises, but my money's on "no - he's a tosser".

Also, FF55 has no sign of a map after all this talk of distant lands and exotic retreats. Admittedly it soon becomes clear that Deathmoor is not at home to Mr. Cartographer, but a token colour map of the surrounding area would have been nice all the same. Surely Leo Hartas wasn't *that* caught up in the sheer feelgood factor of his acclaimed work with the Teletubbies.

Following a nice description of your daily routine diving for scarlet pearls around your chosen holiday resort of Takio, things start to plummet at a rate of knots. Arion might as well be any old town, its pubs and other locales coming straight out of the Big Book of Titan Stereotypes. And that's just the start of it as disinterest rapidly seeps into the writing style, followed by the occasional burst of palpable scorn ("That was stupid", you are kindly informed at the beginning of one paragraph). I can't say I get the impression that Mr. Waterfield had a particularly good time writing this book. Which is a shame, because he's not an untalented writer... when he's actually trying.

For instance, Deathmoor is described as "a region of legendary harshness", though "legendary arseness" would be more appropriate. The only interesting thing about the place is the suggestion of an ancient civilisation wiped out by a war of sorcery, which isn't the most unique idea in itself but would at least have made your journey more memorable had it been woven more thoroughly into the setting. As it stands, a couple of locations vaguely labelled as belonging to that long-lost culture are about all you can expect.

Also, the writing sometimes varies from its usual tone of flat indifference to weird extremes. Limp comedy (such as the scene where you trade Terry & June-level insults with Fang-zen) contrasts uncomfortably with events that are just plain morbid by FF standards, especially when you consider that the notorious '300 section dumbing-down' plan for the series was so close at hand: at one point you get to watch an old woman die from a vicious beating in the burnt-out ruin of her own home, and way back at the beginning of the adventure, you're informed that the kidnappers left a message spelt out in limbs hacked from the friends of 15-year-old Princess Telessa. Nice.

You might at least think that this would make for some inventive death scenes, but you're in for a letdown there too. Most of them are dull, none of them are memorable and more than a few of them are annoying in their dismissive single-sentence abruptness. Sometimes it'd also be nice to have the option of fighting, even if the odds are stacked well against you, rather than just being told that there are too many of them and you're going to get cut to ribbons, bad luck, the end. "Probably going to die" wasn't quite the same as "definitely going to die" last time I looked. It might sound petty out of context, but when these things pop up out of the blue to kill your adventure stone dead without even the courtesy of an almost entirely unachievable dice roll, it soon starts to grate.

All in all, though, the most glaring side-effect of The Waterfield's pervasive lack of concern is your character coming across as a total cretin. Supposedly he's this veteran adventurer who can afford to live on a semi-permanent skive in some exotic part of the world, but many of the choices that you're offered (and some made automatically) jolt you into questioning this profile at every turn. When you're not reading sentences that prominently feature words like 'fumble' and 'blunder', you're considering options like this: "You come across the half-sunken, half-rotten shell of an ancient willow tree. Will you climb inside the hollow trunk or not?" WHY? WHY WOULD YOU? In another paragraph you're offered a choice of potentially lethal toadstools to eat based on which of the pretty colours you like best, and then, after one incidental combat, you're told that your all-important compass was "irretrievably lost during this fight". WHY? DID YOU SWALLOW IT? WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED? When your hero eventually gets up for a stroll in the middle of the night and plunges off a cliff to his death, you'll be cursing the local institution that let him escape and forced you to play as the stupid idiot.

Thank God for Russ Nicholson. He's on good form here, and it's thanks to his contribution that Deathmoor can claim to do anything at all better than average. Flicking through the book brings back memories of the good old days of the earliest FFs, and there's even a trademark Nicholson Ghoul thrown in for good measure.

Frankly the level of detail in some of these illustrations is almost ridiculous as the swirling mists of Deathmoor are taken as a challenge rather than something to be conveniently ignored, as many a lesser contractor would (I know I bloody would have). You can almost count the man hours of artistic masochism that went into otherwise basic portraits of the Flesh-Eater and Mist Demon - it's good stuff, something to savour, and displays an effort sorely missing throughout the rest of the book.

As Deathmoor was released right in the middle of a couple of J. Green books and an Ian Livingstone (sorry, 'Ian Livingstone') book, it must have been a relief for readers to be able to explore for a whole three or four paragraphs at a time without falling into an instant death trap or tripping over a small army of Skill 12 undead bandits with double-damage battleaxes and vicious life-sucking special skills. However, the combats themselves are a good example of the overall lack of imagination here. For the most part your opponents are just existing FF monsters with different names (give me one good reason why the Pelagines are any different to Fish Men and the Pterolin isn't just a Roc, and I'll give you... a Toblerone), and the ones that can't be pigeonholed quite so easily aren't exactly shining beacons of innovation. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present - the 'Slime Monster'. Terrifying.

Thankfully there are a handful of encounters that provide slightly more fulfilment than a token exchange of blows with some dreary git in a swamp. Uninspiring as the Flintskins are, there are at least a pretty wide range of outcomes from your run-in with them, and being able to hack at one of the Marsh Orcs' towering stilt huts until it comes crashing down on top of them provides the best laugh in the whole book. Also, some of the early encounters within Arion make an agreeable change in that they put the enemy at a disadvantage for once: there's an Ogre who doesn't have enough room to swing his axe properly and suffers a Skill penalty because of it, and a surprisingly bloodthirsty gardener whose weapon can be chopped in half. And I don't mean his penis. Though that would have been another option worth having. Anyway, the book soon gives up on this idea like it effectively gives up on so many after the opening stages, but it was nice while it lasted.

The most disappointing encounter of all, though, is the final confrontation with Arachnos. In fact I'm not even sure you can call it a confrontation, seeing as it lasts all of two paragraphs and offers you absolutely no freedom of choice in the way it unfolds, which is sort of the point of interactive fiction, don't you think? I won't describe exactly how it goes, but let's just say it reminded me of the kind of crap stunt Mysterio was always trying to pull in the 1960s Spider-Man cartoon - and as if that wasn't bad enough, the only possible way of 'solving' it makes bugger all sense.

On the approach to this anticlimax you could even be fooled into thinking that the author's interest is picking up again, as Arachnos' lair is built like a tribute to the Trial of Champions with pointless, deadly turnings and arbitrary 'predict the author's twisted mind' choices all over the shop, not to mention a second-hand Bloodbeast clone for you to contend with. But after all that, the payoff's about as exciting and satisfying as trying to accelerate up a hill in a Nissan Micra, and I know what I'm talking about there. Your nemesis is variously described as "the Life-Stealer" and "a creature of Chaos" who's plagued the region for centuries, but with a single unrelated (and fatal) exception well before this point, none of that business amounts to anything more than empty words. Which is, you know, annoying.

Another small curiosity is that section 400 isn't reserved for Glorious Unconditional Triumph and Jolly Well Done Bags Of Treasure as tradition dictates, which might lead you to believe that there are cunning multiple endings scattered throughout the book. What can I say? Don't get your hopes up.

Not much to report here. No finicky extra stats, and no looming time counter. In a way it makes a nice change to get back to basics, but in another way - the way of the dedicated nit-picker - it feels like one more example of the halfheartedness of this whole venture.

Once I'd realised that it was possible to instantly fail the book from section 1, I was going to offer grudging credit to Deathmoor for at least not stringing you along. Then I realised that you can *think* you haven't failed from section 1, but not find out that you actually have until somewhere close to the end. So sod that.

And while the difficulty of enemy encounters is refreshingly close to normal in this stab-happy final leg of the series, the book makes up for it in other ways. The most obvious one is general confusion and misdirection, as under the thin excuse that the mists of Deathmoor make it impossible to know where you're going, all sorts of liberties are taken with your progress. You end up roaming around just waiting for an option that leads to a paragraph number you haven't seen before, though even that's a risky game as the author will happily kill you off with two out of three choices if they don't go the way he wants you to go.

There *are* some places where the path branches and you're offered a genuine choice (though they tend to loop back on each other, leading to at least one potentially replayed encounter - teH NAugHteY!!#), but on the whole freedom of direction is stolen from you the minute you set foot into the South Wales-style squelchy gloom of Deathmoor. This is all the more galling because the whole story revolves around the life-or-death pursuit of half-Giant henchman Otus back to Arachnos' lair: you're told that "it will be very hard to track Otus through Deathmoor, but you are confident of your abilities", then one fight later you've utterly lost his trail for the rest of the book. Did I mention that your character's a complete waste of space?

After a mildly promising start, the deeper I got into Deathmoor, the more obvious it became why I have so few good memories of it from the first time around. Far and away the biggest problem is that feels like it was written in under a week to fill a desperate gap in the publishing schedule. Whether or not there's any truth to that theory, I don't know, nor am I sure whether I want there to be. None of Robin Waterfield's previous books were this half-arsed, so it'd go some way to explaining the overwhelming lameness of the writing; still, encroaching deadlines or not, that's not the kind of attitude you want from your gamebooks (especially not a series as high-profile as FF).

At the very least, I suppose, Deathmoor provides a bit of a break from Keith Martin and Jonathan Green, who both managed to crowbar three books each into the series' final ten. And it gets minimal credit for featuring a game of Pinfinger, something that should be on the checklist for every self-respecting gamebook. Other than that, it's pretty worthless, not to mention counterproductive. We all know that FF readers were dropping like flies as the series staggered on, and who'd become a rabid gamebook devotee after reading this?


[Jared Milne]

Well, we have a Khul-based book from Robin Waterfield, the author of Masks of Mayhem, Phantoms of Fear, and Rebel Planet. I personally won't touch any sci-fi FF book with a ten-foot Hawkstaff (obscure reference to the Zagor Chronicles there), but that's up to you.

A pretty normal plot -- Princess Telessa is kidnapped by a mysterious assailant, and now adventurers have been sent for to save her. You make the trip as one of these adventurers, but Sukh just has to interfere, sending a storm which slows you down long enough so the evil Fang-Zen gets the mission instead. Now, you've got to get the mission from him, and go in search of the princess in the evil Deathmoor, a horrible place apparently just northwest of the Battlegrounds in Khul, and due west of Arion.

The book is pretty decent FF fare, with you being able to hang out in Arion for a bit to take the mission from Fang-Zen, do a bit of gambling, etc. Free tip: If you don't succeed at getting the mission scroll from Fang-Zen, start over. You have to succeed a LUCK roll and a SKILL roll to get it. The LUCK roll I could do without, as I don't really like having the fate of my mission hang on a die roll.

As a sidenote, you'll meet two evil plumbers by the names Oiram and Iguil. (Mario and Luigi, of Nintendo fame? Robin's obviously a Sega fan.) But I won't say too much more than that.

As for the rest of the book, you have to collect some special artifacts to open the door to the villain's lair, but there's also a way to get in without it, although it's extremely difficult to find. Some new beasties are met in the book, and Waterfield is very good at creating new Titan beasties.

No book is without its bad points, however. A special coded letter you can find made absolutely no sense to me. I don't mind hard puzzles, but there's hard, and then there's _impossible_. The last puzzle is much like one of the ones in the Puzzles section of "Return to Firetop Mountain". I truly hate math puzzles with fifths, eighths and so on. If you can figure it out, great. I couldn't, and I found the reference by accident. [Check the solution if you need help.]

Also, they say that the villain is a Life-Stealer. Is that a figurative title, or is he really a Life Stealer?  (Look in Out of the Pit if you're confused.) Only a tiny bit of background info is provided for this guy, and no description whatsoever. It's rather irritating, as I like to know just who I'm fighting.
The book is decent, as are Nicholson's illustrations. He's no McCaig or McKenna, but quite good nonetheless. Nothing really stands out about this book, but if you can pick it up, great. If not, you won't be missing anything major.

Rating: 7.5/10