Wednesday, November 2, 2011

#8 - "Scorpion Swamp", by THE OTHER Steve Jackson (1984)

So yeah, Fighting Fantasy was actually a massively successful series. My copy of Scorpion Swamp is a 1988 re-print and the inside cover reads like this:

First published 1984
Reprinted 1984 (three times), 1985 (twice), 1986 (twice), 1987, 1988 

That's ten printings in four years - undeniable evidence of a public that was just clamouring for GOBLINS. In the face of this kind of success, an early challenge for Messrs. Jackson and Livingstone was that they simply couldn't write books fast enough. So, they brought in other authors to work on the series, slapping a big "Steve JACKSON AND Ian LIVINGSTONE PRESENT" logo on the cover and relegating the actual author's name to page 3. When I was a kid I assumed that this was because they were egomaniacs, but to be fair I think it was because the names Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone were as much a part of the brand as that dagger with the shrieking monster-face handle.

This is the first book in the series to be farmed out, and it seems that the prototype solution was to just find authors who were already named "Steve Jackson" anyway - hence we have "Scorpion Swamp", written by another, completely different man who is also called Steve Jackson. He went on to do a couple of other books later in the series, notably the wonderful Robot Commando which from memory is set in a society of cowboys who use giant Gundam-style robots to wrangle herds of dinosaurs (something to look forward to).

But this cover is not one of the classics I'm afraid. It depicts a creature which is called the POOL BEAST, because plainly the most distinctive thing about it is that it lives in a pool.  In terms of creature design it is a poor man's BLOODBEAST, sitting in the bath all day, lashing out at passers-by. The one intriguing detail about this animal is that it has a precious gemstone embedded in its forehead, which some enterprising jeweller has already had the patience to cut and facet in situ. But besides that, the POOL BEAST basically looks like the artist added a few teeth and eyeballs to a Rorschach inkblot and then spent the rest of their time making sure the POOL looked right.

The POOL BEAST is just a random encounter in the book and I didn't even see it in my play-through. In subsequent pressings the book was retitled as The TRANS (heroic autobot) FORMERS: Swamp of the Scorpion and POOL BEAST got bumped in favour of CYBER-CROC.

I didn't see that helicopter in my play-through either.

Swamp has a pretty basic hook. You're a....... (wait for it)............ wandering swordsman (!!!), for whom "defying evil wizards and slaying giant wolves are all in a day's work". One day an evil wizard specifically asked you not to slay his giant wolf, which meant you could get your day's work done before lunch and you were able to knock off early. On your way to the pub that afternoon you discovered an old lady passed out on the road, so you gave her a drink of water and helped her get safely home. In classic folk-lore fashion, she turned out to be a decently powerful witch and she rewards you with a brass ring - pardon me - a Brass Ring.

The Brass Ring has a couple of nifty features, notably its wearer can always tell which way is North, and also it warms up in the presence of evil people. I did wonder if it activates strictly in the presence of those who are inherently evil, or if it also heats up when society is to blame. But Scorpion Swamp doesn't really explore these issues.

Having discovered the Brass Ring's eerie powers, our protagonist decides the best possible use of his new powers of orienteering would be to explore Scorpion Swamp, a territory feared and avoided by all right-thinking people because it's really easy to get lost in. The paths are all twisty, compasses don't work there, and there's too much "evil fog" to navigate by the sun and stars. Other factors: it's a swamp, scorpions.

Let the orienteering begin!
Rolling Up My Dude

SKILL - 11 (again!)
LUCK - 10

Rules are standard, with the addition of a number of Good, Neutral and Evil spells that you can cast (though you don't start with any). Also there's no Provisions, and I don't have a shield.

The Adventure

It begins with your arrival in the town of Fenmarge, which lies on the fringe of Scorpion Swamp. Or on the margins of the fen, if you like. When you explain the locals at the pub that you're going into the swamp to dash all around the place while knowing where North is, they look at you like this:

That's an incredible photo-bomb from homie in the lower right corner.

They are genuinely concerned for your safety, and warn you that a number of animal-themed magicians called "The Masters" have recently taken residence in the swamp, unaware that this actually sounds quite rad and will only encourage you. As you saunter towards the door, scoffing at their rustic ways, you are accosted by a fellow with the hilarious name of Gronar, who looks like a farmer, but "seems more interested in you than any farmer should be!" This suspiciously interested farmer-looking gent takes you aside, sits you down, and raises a pretty good point:

'If you really intend to brave the terrors of the swamp' he says, ' you ought to have some purpose, rather than random mapping and beast-slaying.'

After gasping "WHAT" and "NOOOO" you reflect for a moment and find yourself agreeing. Gronar explains that there are three wizards living in Fenmarge who have need of someone to run errands in the swamp - the virtuous, Good wizard Selator - the shady old dirty old rotten old Evil wizard Grimslade - and some guy called "Poomchukker". So naturally I chose to go and work for Poomchukker.

Poomchukker turns out to be a tubby man with bright red skin and a passing resemblance to George R. R. Martin.

Poomchukker, the greatest living author of fantasy fiction.
Inset: with hat and glasses.

He explains that he is not actually a wizard, just a rich, bright red man in a robe who collect magic items and is happy to let people leap to their own conclusions. He has a business proposal for you - he wants his caravans to be able to take a short-cut across the swamp from Fenmarge to the town of Willowbend on the other side. If you can blaze the trail and return to him with a neatly labelled map on graph paper, he will "pay you half the money that [he saves] during the first year" - which is a pretty suspiciously phrased offer if you ask me. I mean, it might be a short-cut, but once again: SWAMP, SCORPIONS, you know the drill. Not a great environment through which to drag a wagon-load of frankincense and Taiwanese microwave ovens. But since the protagonist's initial impulse had been to just map the whole swamp for the fun of it, I thought this was the kind of offer he'd be into, and so I accepted.

Like a true baller, Poomchukker then tips a whole big box of single-use Spell Gems out onto the table and lets you take any five that you want. I chose one each of Fire, Ice, Illusion, Luck, and Stamina. They more or less do what it says on the label.

So, into the swamp then. Before getting any leeches on my dick I decided to take stock and drew up a strategy, which I then crow-barred into shitty rhyming aphorisms:

1) If you gonna go forth, make sure it's North! - the book told me that Willowbend was to the north somewhere, which was helpful because I got a Brass Ring that tells me where North is. Can't lose really.

2) Don't be a sap, you gotta draw a map! - the book is geared around mapping, it even gives all the locations their own numbers. I couldn't really be arsed, but I sighed and fetched a pen nevertheless. I drew the line at going out to the shop for graph paper though - the back of a letter from my insurance company would do.

3) If the ring gets hot, beat them into snot! - The magic ring detects evil, so I resolved that if it ever warmed up I would lay a Forest of Doom style psycho smackdown on whatever or whoever I happened to be facing at the time. Seems reasonable. And yeah I know the idiom is "to beat the snot out of" someone not "to beat them into snot". But do you honestly expect me to run with: "if the ring gets hot, out of them beat the snot"?  I'm already pretty embarrassed about these aphorisms as it is. I regret sharing them. I mean what the fuck else rhymes with "hot" anyway, seriously.

4) If the ring stay cool, discretion's the rule! - i.e. avoid fights under all other circumstances. Negotiate, retreat, whatever. I recall from Lizard King that there's no guarantee of coasting through the book on 11 SKILL. This rule is kind of a corollary of the next one:

5) Play it safe, stay out of the... graaaaay... fe. Stay out of the (cough) grafe. - Well, okay. If you're wondering: yes, I do feel ashamed of myself. But I come from a country where we rhyme star with war in the damn national anthem, so what can you expect really. Anyway, I figured that since my mission was just to get from A to B and back, I wouldn't need to scour about for any improbable reagents and gadgets to off the boss or collect code-words and gemstones to get through a big locked door in the middle of the swamp, or any crap like that. So, no Bizarre Search Behaviour, no jumping down wells, no sticking my arm into badger holes, etc, etc. Just keep moving, follow the rules, and stay alive long enough to get to the other side.

Oh, and most importantly: "HAVE FUN!"

Having set my mind for victory, I cracked my knuckles and got stuck in. First thing I noticed when I got to Scorpion Swamp was that there are pretty obvious trails to follow. Bear in mind that this is supposed to be the notoriously unnavigable, monster-haunted swamp that everybody stays the hell away from. Someone even took the time to paint "STOP! SCORPION SWAMP! TURN BACK!" on a boulder. But as we'll see for a shunned hell-hole it gets quite a bit of through traffic. I mean it's busier than Queen Street on a Sunday, I'll say that.

The first challenge I faced was that there was a "soft part" on the trail. Do I want to jump over the soft bit or step carefully around it? Hmm, okay. This has happened to me a number of times when hiking - in real life! -  so I think I can deal with it. "♫ Play it safe, stay out of the grafe! ♫" I hummed to myself and gingerly stepped over to an adjacent dry spot. Brutally, I then had to Test My Luck and lose 1 STAMINA if I was unlucky, which I guess correlates to the real-world experience when your foot skids into the mud and some of that nasty shit soaks into your sock and then you have a blister by then end of the hike.

On the other hand, I took a peek later and if you jump over the soft part, you have to roll against STAMINA with the loss of 1 SKILL point at stake (from falling over and spraining your wrist), which is a much worse penalty. So it seemed my game plan was working so far - I had made it past the first clearing unscathed.

Then I came to a junction. "♫ If you gonna go forth, make sure it's North! ♫" I sang to myself, adding "doo-dah, doo-dah" as a coda. (I should explain that as an aide memoire I had set my five aphorisms to the tune of 'De Camptown Races'. There's a couple of bits where you gotta sing a line real quick, or conversely, stretch a vowel out to cover like three beats, but I'm not trying to win any awards over here)

Only problem is, there was no way to go north, so I went East. Next thing I saw was a tree with a hole in it.

 Oh man I bet there's all kinds of great stuff inside that tree.

Nah, fuck that mess. From here, I could go north, so I did. Pretty soon I started noticing cobwebs all over the place. Generally a bad sign when you're in the fantasy genre. Turns out the next clearing is home to the MASTER OF SPIDERS, the first of those neat animal-themed Masters that the townsfolk mentioned. He's just cooling out on a cobweb-themed throne in a big pavilion made of spider-silk, letting spiders crawl all over him like a boss.

The homie even rocks the spider-theme medallion with the spider-theme belt-buckle.

 'Just an innocent spider enthusiast?', you may wonder. Nope, the ring got hot as soon as he looked at me, so I hit him with my Fire spell. (Readers can sing the relevant aphorism themselves if they like, I got tired of that joke already).

It turns out cobwebs burn pretty well - not only does the MASTER OF SPIDERS go up in smoke, pretty soon that entire section of the swamp is ablaze. This caused me to "loose" 3 STAMINA from burns incurred in the course of my escape (yes that one made it past the editors somehow). Not a terrible trade-off though, I was on my way.

I kept heading north wherever possible and veered east or west when blocked. Skipping a few encounters, the next interesting thing that I found was a guy having a picnic:

A cheese picnic.

Consider once again that this is the notoriously unnavigable, monster-haunted Scorpion Swamp, where a foul fog obscures the sky, those who venture in are doomed to wander lost amidst the trackless marsh until they collapse or are devoured, a darksome place that right-thinking men fear as much to mention as to enter, et cetera, and so on. And this fruitcake's having a picnic.  "Good day, fighter, will you share my meal?" he asks. Now bear in mind, that archetypal wedge of Swiss cheese looks just as tasty as it does in every single cartoon starring a mouse. But then the Brass Ring got hot. So you know the sword gotta come out. "Let me cut that cheese for you, friend", I said in a menacing rasp, drawing my blade. I hesitated momentarily as it occurred to me that he might think I was alluding to farts for some reason. Maybe I should say something equally tough-sounding that would also clear up any misunderstanding. Or on the other hand, I could just murder him. So I did - a fairly tough opponent at SKILL 10, but the dice didn't go his way. As Steve Jackson II puts it: "The body of the Thief lies at your feet. He was not as clever as he thought he was!" - damn straight he wasn't - this genius set a picnic trap for travellers in, you know, the middle of a swamp that all travellers avoid upon peril of their lives. And I dunno how he thought he was gonna find his way home again either.

You can take his Red Cloak with you, and you also get to eat the cheese, though surprisingly it doesn't cause any of your wounds to start sucking in blood and sealing themselves up. After this encounter I came to point where, to keep going north, I would have to leap twenty metres off a cliff, into water of unknown depth, in plain sight of the GIANT CROCODILES lolling about on the far bank.  At this point I decided that the rule about not doing stupid shit was probably more important than the one about always going north. From my vantage point I could also see a bridge somewhere off the east, so I doubled back to try to work my way over to it.

And here we have one of the nice features of this book - it's designed so you can re-visit the same locations - the paragraph for each clearing instructs you to turn to another paragraph if you've been there before.  So when I went back to the THIEF clearing, the book asked me if I had killed the THIEF already and since I had, it let me skip straight to the direction-choosing. Nicely handled there, Scorpion Swamp.

Fast-forwarding again, I made it to the bridge and got across to the north side of the river. Round about this time I was starting to wonder why they called this place Scorpion Swamp. "You would expect there to be scorpions" I thought to myself. Well, good things come to those who wait. There's one clearing which is pretty much all scorpions.

The boiling carpet of scorpions at the heart of Scorpion Swamp.

An elite strike team of these little rascals swarmed up my pant leg and stung me for 6 STAMINA, which luckily I could spare. Interestingly, the Brass Ring also gave a 'prickling sensation' in their presence, which would indicate either that these SCORPIONS are slightly evil, or the ring has some undocumented features.

"So that's why they call it Scorpion Swamp!" I thought to myself as I squirmed a horrified Cosby dance into the next clearing, slightly evil scorpions still tumbling from the cuff of my pant leg.

No, THIS is why they call it Scorpion Swamp.

You step round a tree to see a GIANT SCORPION fighting a Dwarf who is wearing leather armour. The Dwarf is in trouble. As you rush towards the fight, the Scorpion catches the Dwarf's neck in one of its claws and throws him to the ground, where he lies still. You doubt that you have any magic spells which would be worth using on this enemy. If you leave the clearing while the monster feasts on the Dwarf, turn to 88. If you --

Yeah, yeah - that one, 88. Rule #4. Let's go.

After that amusing diversion, the next time I "stepped round a tree" I bumped into this playboy:

Laying it on a bit thick aren't ya mate?

I pause a moment, but the Brass Ring stays cool.
'I serve the shareholders of the Poomchukker Trading Company' I say, after some consideration.
'Huh. Neutral.' He turns his head and spits. 'What are you doing here. Don't you know this swamp is a pitiless wasteland, where all who enter perish, without hope of escape? Apart from me, obviously.'
'Yeah you and about a dozen other folks I met, out and about on they Sunday strolls.' I mutter. 'One guy had a picnic basket!'
'Well, look. Suit yourself. But it's not very safe here. What are your intentions?'
'Oh right okay well I'm making a map to Willowbend.' I admit with a little why not? shrug.
'Willowbend...' he hisses, and his eyes narrow. I suddenly notice his resemblance to Kevin Costner in 1991's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
'I see', he continues, 'in that case, go south, then west at the crossing of the paths. Stay on the path!'
'Sure. Thanks for the directions.' I hoist my pack to my shoulder and turn to leave.
'Wait!' he calls 'Should you meet anyone Evil... send them this way.' He looks to the horizon. A breeze stirs his hair. 'I'm going to jump off this rock and hit them with my sword.'

So anyway I decided that this guy was unlikely to be misleading me and I followed his directions. Along the way I was attacked by a SLIME, which I decided to cast a spell on. Then suddenly I won the game!

Paragraph 400... at last.

Okay, so that was a bit misleading. After my initial excitement I realised that since this book has three possible missions to choose from, there should be three "victory" endings, and they can't all be 400. So I guess that convention went out the window for this book.

But I suppose this is as good a time as any to let you know that I actually did win.

Failure, and -- wait a minute, VICTORY!

Here's how it happened. If you're wondering, I cast Ice on the Slime and it turned into something a little reminiscent of lime ice-cream left in the deep-freeze for a year past its best-by date. I tip-toed around it and went on my way. I knew I was close to my destination. But there was one more group of guys incongruously hanging out in the death-swamp to contend with - five BRIGANDS.

The Brass Ring stayed cool so I figured I'll just roll up to them and say what's up. Turns out these fellers are the most genteel BRIGANDS ever:

The Brigands are accustomed to asking for money from passers-by, but they are not murderers. Although they could attack you, the odds would be five-to-one, they do not feel that would be very sporting. Finally, the leader suggests a solution. 

He suggests that you duel to first blood. You get free passage if you win, if he wins, you give him "something of value".

I suddenly notice his resemblance to Errol Flynn in 1938's "Adventures of Robin Hood".

I gave him a little stab in the leg that drew blood and laddered his tights. He congratulated me on my win, and his mate gave me a swig of water. Then we "all laugh and joke as though you are old friends".

'Hahahahahahaha... oh boy. You guys are cool.' I say, wiping a tear of mirth from the corner of my eye. 'Hey, how's business out here in the swamp? Get many scores? I mean, I had the impression that folks sort of avoid this place.'
The leader frowns, he glances about quickly to check if his companions are listening. 'Yes, it hasn't been easy. More than once our dinner has been nothing more than an unidentified fungus that I noticed growing on a log.' he says in a low voice. 'But the fact is, if we set up on one of the main highways we'll be up against the evil brigands.' His voice now drops to almost a whisper. 'Those dudes are killers!'
He sighs and shakes his head.
I feel sorry for the dejected Brigand Leader. 'Well, word to the wise, mate - I got a hunch there might be some rich caravans coming through this way in a couple of weeks. You just keep your head up and practice your duelling.' I say with a wink.

He thanks me and tells me that Willowbend is near. He even recommends an inn. Once again my game plan has paid off - if you refuse to duel, or otherwise act hostile to the BRIGANDS, the Leader hulks out and you have to fight them all to the death.

"The sword is for gentlemen. DOGS GET THE AXE."

Sure enough, I follow the trail to Willowbend, where I celebrate my success with a night at the Bent Spear and splurge on a Stamina Spell Gem from "Halicar Dealer in Potions & Spells" in case I need it for the trip back. My main worry is that I will have to fight the GIANT SCORPION on the way back through, but it turns out to have waddled off somewhere, leaving only a few scraps of leather armour to mark the spot. I do have to contend with all the baby scorpions again - they're still milling about furiously, but I'm able to hopskotch my way through them. Other than that I'm able to retrace my steps to Fenmarge with little incident. Poomchukker is thrilled with my crappy little map and awards me a great big emerald on the spot. I'm also invited to hang out in his house for the next year so I can collect my share of the caravan profits. Victory at last! Hooray.

Monsters, Combat, Noteworthy Encounters

Okay, actually my journey back from Willowbend was a little more eventful than that. I had to take a detour, which also happened to contain some of the more interesting encounters that I haven't mentioned so far. You see, when I tried to go back through the MASTER OF SPIDERS' clearing, it was still on fire. Even though it was the next day. (It turns out that regardless of whether you use a Fire spell or not, there's no way to get through that clearing without setting it permanently on fire).

I decided to loop back around and try to approach Fenmarge from the western side. I was pretty nervous that I'd meet something horrible and deadly on the way, but the first thing I encountered was a lovely UNICORN!

Look at that little smile! Look at that gleam in his eye!

Unfortunately it was angry that I wasn't a virgin or something because it charged me - and it turned out to be the toughest opponent I faced with SKILL 11, but fortunately that little scratch you can see on its flank had already taken it down to STAMINA 4. Had I been working for the Good wizard, Selator, I might've had a Friendship spell I could've cast on it instead, but I wasn't. I was working for money. I did try to observe Rule #4 and run away at first but I could only go back the way I came, so really it was unavoidable that I slaughter this rare and noble beast. "Damn, that's a pretty Neutral thing to do" I thought to myself as I stepped over its corpse.

So that was probably the book's most dangerous, and poignant, encounter. The next clearing to the south had what is easily the book's dumbest encounter: SWORD TREES.


How did these trees get those swords? The book implies that they've grown them. I think we can agree that's pretty dumb.

So yeah, I chopped them up. Then, finally, as I drew near to my goal, I came upon a log cabin. I notice a WOLF growling as I approached - then the front door swings open and out pops the MASTER OF WOLVES.

This guy was a dick to me. 

Me: "Hi there!"
Him: "You. Get the fuck outta here."
Me: "Er..... okay."

As I go on my way, glancing back over my shoulder, I get angry thinking about how the MASTER OF WOLVES was rude to me. I get a serious case of espirit d'escalier and start thinking about what come-backs I could've made. Like:

"Oh, Master of Wolves, is it? That right? You know I kind of thought you'd have more... wolves, yeah. I mean if one of these guys were to eat some bad meat then you'd be Master of Wolf, wouldn't you." 


"Look the average wolf pack is oh, about six or seven wolves, innit? And you've got... two? I bet there's wolves out there, you know, actually wild ones, that see you coming and say to their mates, they say watch out boys, here comes the Master of Having No Mates! I bet they have a proper laugh, eh?"

And so on, in this vein. I just about resolve to go back and say these things - because this is Scorpion Swamp, and you can go back to places where you've already been - but then another thought occurs to me: Why does he have an axe hanging next to his door, on the outside of the cabin?

Is it in case he loses his key? Or is it a message? Has he left an axe hanging by the door as an open invitation to visitors to cleave his skull? It hangs there, mutely stating: "JUST TRY IT"

The MASTER OF WOLVES is a badass.

As these troubling thoughts were rolling about in my mind, I arrived at the outskirts of Fenmarge and realised "I've won!", so my next thought was: fuck that guy anyway.


The SWAMP SKELETON is a pretty classic archetype - he has green lichen hanging off his bones and will rise up out of the water and such. But, regrettably, he's nowhere to be found in this swamp.

But I thought you guys might be curious about how many MASTERS there are in the book. There's five.  Here's a complete list, along with their ethical orientation:


The MASTER OF FROGS seems to have been basically born into the role. 

Final Thoughts

Well, given that I won this book, I think we can probably say that it's too easy. This might be because I took Poomchukker's mission, which I suspect is the easiest of the three available - the hardest is probably Grimslade's, in which you have to find all the MASTERS and kill them for their disco medallions. But there's a few general features that make the book easy:

  • the victory conditions are very clear, so you can play conservatively and just avoid anything that doesn't appear to directly contribute to winning
  • the Brass Ring's ability to detect evil eliminates ambiguity from most encounters and makes it obvious when you should be aggressive and when diplomatic
  • you can just opt out of many encounters (e.g. the GIANT SCORPION or the MASTER OF WOLVES)

By playing accordingly to my five corny aphorisms I pretty much breezed through (incidentally this risk-averse play style is probably closest to my real-life personality - except of course I wouldn't have gone near the dang swamp in the first place, would probably just have stuck around in Fenmarge and got a job composting garden waste for Selator or something).

From a technical point of view, I rather admire this book. The exploration and mapping mechanism works well - it's almost as if Steve Jackson II had played through the terrible deja vu sequences in "Forest of Doom" and thought - "now how would I fix this train wreck?". The feature is mostly used just to remove encounters the second time you enter a clearing, but it's elegant.

I also like that you have three missions to choose from, which gives the book replay value and a reason to go back in and expand your map (no, I'm not going to play it again, but I recognise that I could play it again and still get something out of it).

On the other hand, it's not a particularly inspired book in imaginative terms - there's a few interesting ideas scattered through it, but in the main it's pretty generic. And if you haven't picked up on it yet, let me point out that I was bothered by the inconsistency between the Swamp's reputation and the fact that there's all these idiots hanging around in it, having a great time, without apparently getting lost/doomed.

All up, an okay book I suppose. I feel relieved that I finally won one - if you get through all 60 books without winning any, it's a compulsory down-trou. I'll be back in a mere handful of weeks to churn through Ian Livingstone's Caverns of the Snow Witch.