Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday, 30 November 2018

Friday Filler: Big Trouble

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 and a core Race found in Dungeons & Dragons. So there is a title involving a Cleric, a Fighter, a Rogue, and a Wizard and a title involving a Dwarf, an Elf, a Halfling, and a Human. These are combined into the classic pairings found in Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, so the four books in turn tell of the adventures of a Dwarf Cleric, an Elf Wizard, a Halfling Rogue, and a Human Fighter. 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.

Having explored the adventures of the Human Fighter in the underworld in Escape the Underdark, the adventures of a Dwarf Cleric in Into the Jungle, and the adventures of a Halfling Rogue in To Catch a Thief, you follow the adventures of an Elf Wizard in Big Trouble. As the protagonist, you are a young Elf living with your younger brother and parents in the Ardeep Forest where you are studying to be a wizard. Unfortunately, your idyll is broken by the crashing and cracking of trees as your home comes under attack by some quite voracious giants! In the aftermath of the attack—as with the previous books in the series—you are given two fundamental choices. In this case, which parent to go after, as both are missing! Go one way and you will find yourself at the home of the giants and dealing with a creature that is so greedy, so vile, he is worthy of a Roald Dahl story. Go the other way and you run into some good company along the way to Eye of All Father in search of help. In between, there are encounters with kobolds and goblins, dragons and barbarians, and more, including with one of the greatest figures in all the Forgotten Realms. Indeed, greater than that encountered in To Catch a Thief.

In many ways, Big Trouble is very different to the other titles. The protagonist is not some lone adventurer trying to escape, on an assignment for the organisation he works for, or forced on a mission to pay for his crimes, but rather a wouldbe adventurer searching for his family. This makes the quest far more personal and important and it makes the choices presented seem all the more difficult and all the more desperate. It should be noted that not all of the choices offered end in the protagonist’s death, but whilst many do, there are many that also end, if not on a happy note, then not on an unhappy one either. Even with the most positive of outcomes the story does not have a truly happy ending either, the single splitting path structure of the Endless Quest format prevents the reader from switching back to the search for the other parent. On the plus side, the protagonist does get to cast some spells, just as a wizard should and some of them are recognisable as Dungeons & Dragons spells.

Big Trouble takes the protagonist into the wilds north and south of the Ardeep Forest, so unlike To Catch a Thief, the locations visited in the main, are less familiar than those of Waterdeep. Like the other books in the series, the book is very nicely illustrated with art taken from an array of Dungeons & Dragons books. It also contains some memorable encounters, both good and bad, though the bad are of course, the most entertaining ones.

One issue with Big Trouble—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.

In terms of tone, Big Trouble is not as dour or as grim as either Escape the Underworld or Into the Jungle, nor is there the devil may care attitude to be found in To Catch a Thief. There is an air of desperation to its story though and the protagonist is understandably earnest and desperate to find his family. The personal nature of the story means that the reader can more readily identify with the protagonist than he can with the protagonists of the other three new Endless Quest titles. In addition, the lack of familiarity to the places it takes the protagonist to means that it is not as good an introduction to the Forgotten Realms as Escape the Underworld or To Catch a Thief are. Nevertheless, Big Trouble is an adventure that the older reader will enjoy and which should provide inspiration for when they get to the gaming table and play Dungeons & Dragons for real.