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Friday 2 November 2018

Friday Filler: Into the Jungle

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, Into the Jungle follows your adventures as a Dwarf Cleric. You are a member of the Harpers, the loose organisation found across Faerûn dedicated to the promotion of fairness and equality and to helping the weak, the poor, and the oppressed. One of its most famous members, Artus Cimber, has gone missing, and with him, the famed artefact, the Ring of Winter. This is why as Into the Jungle opens, you find yourself arriving at Port Nyanzaru on the coast of Chult, charging with locating the old man and determining whether or not the ring is safe. In terms of setting at least, this ties Into the Jungle in with Tomb of Annihilation, the seventh of the campaigns published by Wizards of the Coast for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition.

In Chult—or rather the Chultan Peninsula—you have a lost world of tropical jungle inhabited by dinosaurs, Goblins, Pterafolk, missionary pioneers, and masses of the undead. Your character will certainly some of these in the course of his adventures. First though, your Dwarf Cleric will need to find some reliable guides as finding unreliable ones will lead you down a whole other path, and then it is off into the jungle itself. In his quest to locate the legendary Harper, you will have encounters with religious zealots, dinosaurs—some alive, some not, goblins, undead, strange old witches, and more. The latter including some very out of place visitors to the region! Along the way, your character will have to make several moral choices, many of which will strain your friendship with your guides to breaking point and beyond.

In comparison to Escape the Underworld, the protagonist in Into the Jungle gets to play up his Race lots and lots. So there are plenty of grumbles to be had about the unsuitability of Dwarves to be on the water, in the swamp, and so on. He does not though, get to do as much as his Class suggests he is capable of. Although the Dwarven Cleric is a devotee of Clangeddin Silverbeard, the dwarven deity of battle and honour in warfare, the character rarely does well in battle, his prayers to his deity go unanswered, and he never gets to cast any spells. Of course, just like Escape the Underworld, there are plenty of choices to be made in Into the Jungle, many of them leading very quickly to certain death or fates worse than that, but there are positive outcomes too. Some of these see your Dwarf Cleric not finding Artus Cimber or ascertaining the status of the Ring of Winter, so they are not quite as satisfying endings as the main mission.

One issue with Into the Jungle—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. 

There is not quite the familiarity to Into the Jungle as there is to Escape the Underdark, but it does a good job of taking the reader across Faerûn to introduce him to the exotic peninsula of Chult. It also has some nicely done scenes which effectively do horror without actually being horrific, and the themes of friendship and duty well handled throughout. For the older the gamer there is not quite the sense of nostalgia to Into the Jungle as there is Escape the Underdark, but for the teenaged 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.

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