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Friday, 26 October 2018

Friday Filler: Escape the Underdark

Although the ‘Choose Your Adventure’ style of gamebooks had been around by the time The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was published in 1982, the first Fighting Fantasy title was groundbreaking. It allowed gamers to play in their own time, complete with a solid set of rules so that it felt like a roleplaying adventure, and the success of the series meant the adventures were readily available in bookshops and high street shops rather than in just speciality shops. In comparison, the Endless Quest series, published by TSR, Inc. were no match, for whilst their stories took place in the worlds of the publisher’s various settings, they were all text, did not come with any mechanics, and so did not feel like a game. TSR, Inc. published two series of the books and its successor, Wizards of the Coast also published its own beginning in 2008. Now the publisher has returned to the series with a new quartet of titles, all tied with Dungeons & Dragons and all set in its default setting of Faerûn in the Forgotten Realms.

Written by Matt Forbeck—best known as the designer of the roleplaying game, Brave New World—each of the quartet focuses upon a core Class found in Dungeons & Dragons. So there is a title each involving a Cleric, a Fighter, a Rogue, and a Wizard. Each comes as a sturdy little hardback, illustrated in full colour with artwork drawn from the current version of Dungeons & Dragons, including lots and lots of monsters. Each book contains some sixty or so entries and is written for a young teenage audience, so they are suitable for those coming to Dungeons & Dragons for the first time. This does not mean that there is nothing of interest for veteran players of Dungeons & Dragons to be found in the pages of these solo adventures. Being set above, below, and across Faerûn, the protagonists of each book will have the opportunity to visit various locations familiar from both the novels set in the Forgotten Realms and the game supplements too.

In Escape the Underdark, the protagonist is a Fighter. Within a page of reading the first entry, you as the Fighter find yourself duped, drugged, and chained in the Underdark. Over the next sixty entries, you will make every attempt to escape to the surface. There are two main strands to the story, one towards the great Drow city of Menzoberranzan, the other away from it. Both have diverging strands, just as you would expect, and what this means is that once you have read through the entries down the one story path, you can literally turn back to the first entry and go down the other. Along the way, you get make friends—some quite unexpected, forge and break alliances, make and break promises, go boating, get into fights, and more. There are plenty of choices to be made, some of them leading very quickly to certain death or fates worse than that.

Within half an hour of cracking open the Escape the Underdark, the reader will probably have died a few times, but by going back and exploring the other lines of adventure, will probably have made their escape to the Surface too. Within an hour, a reader is likely to have explored all of the possible storylines and outcomes. Of course, it will take a little longer for a less experienced or practised reader.

One issue with Escape the Underdark—and thus the Endless Quest series—is the lack of replay value. Once read through, the lack of variability that a set of rules or mechanics, means that there is no longer the challenge to be found in the book and thus a strong issue to read it again. To be fair, mechanics or rules were never a feature of the Endless Quest series and so there is no expectation that they should be in this new series. Just that in comparison with other solo adventures, they are not as sophisticated and so are suited to a younger audience. 

Escape the Underdark really works as an introduction to adventuring in the world of Dungeons & Dragons as much as it does the Forgotten Realms. It is a good read with some exciting scenes and includes some nice story twists that an older gamer will enjoy too. For the older the gamer there is a sense of nostalgia to Escape the Underdark, but the teenage reader and gamer there is an adventure—or few—to be had here, as well as perhaps, inspiration for when they get to the gaming table and play Dungeons & Dragons for real.