Published on February 6th, 2013 | by PJ Montgomery0
Scorpion Swamp – A Fighting Fantasy Flashback
Book 8: Scorpion Swamp
Written by: Steve Jackson (the other one)
Illustrated by: Duncan Smith
First published: 1984
“Nightmarish creatures lurk in the slimy depths of Scorpion Swamp!
You’re no fool. All your life you’ve heard tales of Scorpion Swamp and how it is criss-crossed with treacherous paths leading to the haunts of its disgusting denizens. One step out of place spells a certain and lingering death. But now, the swamp holds out the lure of treasure and glory – and you cannot resist the challenge!”
Scorpion Swamp is a milestone for the Fighting Fantasy series for several reasons. First of all, it’s the book which first took place on the continent of Khul (though this fact wouldn’t be revealed until the release of Titan: The Fighting Fantasy World), firmly establishing Titan as a three continent world (The Old World had been introduced already in Steve Jackson’s Sorcery series. We’ll get to that eventually). Perhaps more importantly, it’s also the first book which wasn’t written by either Steve Jackson or Ian Livingstone. Yes, the writing credit is given to Steve Jackson, but in this case, that refers to the American game designer who brought us such classics as GURPS and Munchkin. This was a major step forward for Fighting Fantasy. With other writers able to write for the series, more books could be released every year, which was a major factor in the eventual worldwide success of the series. Jackson (2) paved the way for writers like Stephen Hand, Jonathan Green and Marc Gascoigne, who would all release Fighting Fantasy books on which the cover would feature the legend “Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone Present” before the title.
Another unique part of Scorpion Swamp is that, although the book features one location, you actually get to choose between three different quests, for three different wizards. Each quest would lead you through the swamp, meeting the same characters and monsters, but the quest you were on might determine how they react to you, as well as which part of the swamp would contain your goal. Finally, Scorpion Swamp is a book which makes you backtrack. Once you’ve found your target, you have to retrace your steps and escape the swamp, revisiting many locations, and yes, that can be as frustrating as it sounds. My own trek through the swamp begins below. Don’t read on if you don’t want the book spoiled.
The background to Scorpion Swamp tells me that I’ve heard of the swamp, but I won’t go there. People get lost in there and die. Until I help a thirsty old woman on the King’s Road get to a nearby town. She rewards me with a brass ring, which feels warm in the presence of evil, and lets me always know which direction is north. What a find! Now what to do… How about prove how awesome I am by mapping Scorpion Swamp? Yeah, that’ll do it.
I arrive at the town of Fenmarge, situated on the edge of the swamp, and make my way to the local inn. There, I boldly announce my intention to enter Scorpion Swamp, to gasps of amazement. The villagers tell me it’s filled with twists, turns, monsters and a group of wizards known as the Masters, one of whom came to the tavern escorted by wolves a short while ago. The villagers tell me they can’t let me go, but I politely explain that I’m going to anyway. For reasons.
A man named Gronar asks me what my reasons are, so I tell him… Um… I… Yeah, I dunno. Could be a laugh? He tells me that going into a place like that with no purpose seems like a bit of a stupid idea, which, ya know, I can’t really argue with. He tells me there are three men in the village, who each have reasons to want to send someone into the swamp. He tells me the first is a wizard who serves the cause of good, then pauses to take a drink, seemingly for effect. Realising I’m probably supposed to interject at this point, I tell him I will serve only good! Sigh. Yes. This from the man who hit a troll with a stool from behind in Deathtrap Dungeon. I think I might be lying.
Still, Gronar falls for it, and inexplicably turns out to be some kind of paladin. Because I’m so virtuous *cough* he increases my initial skill score by two. He then tells me to seek out a wizard named Selator. Which I do. After getting lost a few times, some helpful townsfolk point me towards Selator’s abode. I meet the kindly wizard doing some gardening work in his front garden, and tell him about my plan to head into Scorpion Swamp. Selator asks me how I think I can get through the swamp, and I tell him about my magic ring. Selator seems satisfied, and tells me he needs a plant called Antherica. This plant is used in the conjuring of good spells, but cannot be used in evil spells. As such, the forces of evil destroyed all Antherica plants they could find. The gits. But, Selator believes there is one sample left, growing in Scorpion Swamp, and wants me to retrieve it. He gives me six magic spells to aid in my quest (I choose Friendship, Stamina, Luck, Fire, Bless and Growth), and head off.
I arrive at the entrance to the swamp, where a sign tells me to turn back. Nah, that’s not going to happen. Finding myself in a clearing filled with huge insects, where the ground is shaky and wet, I opt to tread carefully. A successful luck test sees me across to another path, where I decide to head west.
The clearing I end up in has a log cabin in the middle of it, out of which steps a large man with two wolves. Realising that this must be the Master of Wolves, I hail him, and he rudely tells me to leave. I realise my own natural charm isn’t going to work here, so I cast a friendship spell on the Master of Wolves, and he instantly likes me, inviting me into his home. Feeling absolutely fine about manipulating his brain with magic this way, I take him up on the invitation. We’re best pals now, so it’s all good. We talk for a bit, and he tells me to take the easy way across the river, then teaches me a word to make wolves friendly. I thank him and take my leave of my new besty.
I next come to a stream, which I wade across, only to get munched on by mean leeches. Continuing north, I arrive at a clearing populated by a group of sword trees. They attack me, and I defeat them, but am forced to use to my stamina spell already, having taken a lot of damage. I take some sword tree seeds with me, figuring nothing bad can possibly come of this, and head west. Unfortunately, all I find to the west is a dire beast, which I’m forced to kill, and a dead-end. So I wander back, only to find that the sword trees have grown back already and I have to fight them again! I have a little more luck with the dice this time out, and head off north.
In the next clearing, I meet a wounded unicorn, which lowers its horn at me and snorts a challenge. Uh oh. I decide to cast my bless spell on it, and the spell heals its wounds. In thanks, the unicorn digs up some extra spells for me, giving me an extra luck spell and another friendship spell. Yay!
Continuing on my way, I lose two stamina because of swamp gas, which is a bit rubbish, then find myself at the bank of the Foulbrood River. There’s no obvious way to cross, and remembering the advice given to me by the Master of Wolves, decide not to take any risks. I walk along the bank for a way, finding a point where I can see a bridge to the east, but I can’t get to it this way. Still, that’s the way over the river for me, so I head south, hoping to find another way east.
In the next clearing, I meet a man sitting beneath a tree, who invites me to sit with him. My ring gets hot (steady), warning me that this fellow is up to no good. He’s obviously a thief, but I decide to play it cool for now. I sit with him, at which point he admits that he robs travellers, using a net which falls from a tree. He points upwards, and I follow his finger to look at the net. A quick luck test means I suddenly remember the burning sensation on my finger (really? I need to test my luck to remember that), and drop to the floor just in time to avoid the garotte the thief is trying to strangle me with. We fight, I kill him, and nick his natty looking red cape. Take that, evildoer!
Heading east, so as to reach that bridge, I arrive in a clearing filled with dozens of scorpions. As a sidenote, I wonder how Scorpion Swamp got its name? Anyway, I test my luck, and another lucky roll means I have time to cast my fire spell, driving the scorpions back, and allowing me to leg it north. I arrive at the bridge and cross the river safely, before continuing north.
The next clearing I arrive in has an immense tree in the middle of it, and an eagle hovering above, watching me. The eagle looks less than happy, and I’m without a bird amulet or any parrot feathers. I back away slowly, and the eagle, thankfully, leaves me in peace as I head east, into another clearing where I blunder into some quicksand. Brilliant. I lose two stamina points, but a successful luck test allows me to free myself. I’m really starting to wish I had provisions on this adventure.
Heading north, I bump into an unhappy giant who doesn’t want me to pass. I try to reason with him, and he starts crying. Big wuss. Apparently, someone has stolen his lovely red handkerchief, which his wife gave him, the big lummox. Hang on a second… I killed a thief… who had a red cloak… Could it be? Yes! It is! The giant is very happy, so much so that he starts to cry again. Jeez, give it a rest big fella. He asks me why I’m in Scorpion Swamp, and I tell him about my quest for Selator. The giant tells me that he saw the flower I’m describing in a clearing to the north, but that I should watch out for wolves.
I take the giants advice and head north, coming to a clearing where, sure enough, I meet some wolves. I speak the word taught to me by the Master of Wolves, and the beasts become suddenly docile and friendly., which is nice. Searching the clearing, I find a plant which matches the description given to me by Selator. I pick a berry, and being my journey back through the swamp. Reasoning that I know what to expect if I go back the way I came, and wanting to avoid any unexpected stamina loss, I simply retrace my steps.
This time, I cast my growth spell to get over the quicksand, but further encounters with the scorpions, leeches, swamp gas and one more bout with the sword trees leave me with only one stamina point left. Back at the first clearing, I once more step carefully, successfully testing my luck to get out of the swamp. I return to Selator with the Antherica berry, and victory in my quest.
Scorpion Swamp features several mechanics which differ from the rest of the Fighting Fantasy range, to various degrees of success. The option of three different quests to choose from, but all taking place in the same area, works well, and allows the player to take on the swamp in different ways, adding to the books replayability. However, the way the swamp itself works is less successful. Steve Jackson has given each clearing in the swamp a number, with the player given the clearing number at the beginning of each passage, and being told to turn to a different page on certain occasions if you’ve visited the clearing previously. The problem is, this makes Scorpion Swamp a bit too much like a boardgame in book form. Yes, the Fighting Fantasy books are in the gamebook category, but here, the game elements of the book threaten to overpower the rest of it. Each clearing has its own challenge and encounter in it, but the with the aforementioned numbering system, which makes mapping the swamp particularly easy, it just feels like so many random encounters strung together with the loosest of plots. While this is an apt description for many gamebooks, most of the FF series manage to hide the gamier elements in a deeper fantasy adventure, something which Scorpion Swamp simply doesn’t quite manage to get right. Still, it’s an interesting curio in the series history, and worth a look just to see how the first book not to be written by Jackson and Livingstone plays out.
Coming soon: Caverns of the Snow Witch