[Mr Creosote]… this is going to be a tough discussion for me, because I have to admit this was the gamebook which I read/played more often than any other when I was a kid. Whether this was due to thematic preference, due to gameplay-related strengths or other aspects, we will probably find out. However, I cannot guarantee that I can stay objective at all times. Please excuse the occasional drift into nostalgia.
[LostInSpace] Then I hope to be the objective part in this dicsussion, because it only recently became my second gamebook ever. And even though I was thematically interested and the title sounded promising, I was finally not convinced of this adventure.
[Mr Creosote] So let us draw our sabre or cutlass Because after all, this is about the duel of the two greatest cutthroats sailing this inland sea. They agree to meet at a neutral place before the end of 50 days and compare the amount of gold looted and pillaged until then.
[LostInSpace] This is where my criticism already begins: we don't learn much more than the name Abdul of our competitor and likewise, the protagonist's personality remains obscured like a long lost treasure on the bottom of the sea.
[Mr Creosote] The protagonist receives some traits in the course of the plot, particularly when he acts in conflicts with his own crew. Concerning Abdul, at least his appearance and his name signpost that this will be a culturally diverse game world.
[LostInSpace] I'm trying to follow you into this world and indeed, I don't only see rough cliffs with imaginative names, but also some exotic islands in this inland sea which we will travel through. They are the individual stops on our trip to the island of Nippur and we are going to be great heroes. But then again: we are already heroes, aren't we? Both of us – Abdul and me – are the greatest cutthroats of the region. In the attempt to be the only one on top, only "multiculti" Abdul needs to be silenced. This kind of bet seems totally over-constructed to me and right from the beginning I found it hard to feel any thrill for this. In spite of the multi-facetted setting.
[Mr Creosote] You are simply the "bad guy". There is no sinister threat towards the world. There is no baddie sitting in his lair waiting to be stopped. Everything is just about a deep craving for recognition and lust for adventure. Which, actually, I appreciate for a change.
Admittedly, the bet itself makes little sense. This inland sea is not that huge; all those locations should have been plundered a dozen times already. Still I'm willing to accept this restriction.
[LostInSpace] I received basically no pointers inside the book what kind of pirate I'm supposed to be. So I took the (German) cover as reference. It shows a muscular, bare-chested guy with a torn shirt, in his hands a gun and a machete. His hair is cut short, chin and chest are shaved well. This guy bears no resemblance with the usual bad guys we know from TV. On the contrary: this is a mother-in-law's favourite, the protector of the poor, widows and orphans. The stereotype of the evil, mean and unscrupulous pirate is nowhere to be found.
[Mr Creosote] Finally, it is up to you to bring this character to life. By your decisions.
Variety or Arbitrariness?
[Mr Creosote] Of which this book has a lot, even quite fundamental ones. Will you attack merchant ships? Will you lay traps for caravans on land? Will you attack settlements? Or will you go and explore old ruins by yourself?
[LostInSpace] For sure to some degree, the sum of his decisions can build a mosaic of a character. This certainly makes the book appealing to those which want to play through it in different ways. Though it implies what has been said: there is no pre-built character, but an empty playing field to imprint a character on. I would have preferred the plot being built more strongly around the (anti) hero. The reader should be able to rely on his judgement of this role and ask himself: "What would a real 'bad guy' do in this situation?" This answer should then be recorded for the course of the remaining story. But it doesn't. Instead, the reader is taken on an odyssey without a recognisable leitmotif.
[Mr Creosote] For sure, the adventure is rather episodic. You jump from one place to another, hardly anything ever builds on previous encounters. Meaning in gameplay terms there are hardly any inventory objects (apart from treasure) which can be used in later episodes. On the other hand, this leads to a strong variety and the paths through the book really differ (at least for some attempts).
Funny that you used the word odyssey, because for at least two scenes (the cyclops and the bird woman), Ulysses certainly was the inspiration.
[LostInSpace] I don't even want to criticise all that has been recycled and reused. It is clear that the author Andrew Chapman will not reinvent the wheel. Though this melange is not homogenuous and a strong character in the vein of Jack Sparrow could have done the book some good.
[Mr Creosote] Finally, this comes down to the old question whether in an interactive medium, the protagonist should just be an empty shell for the player to project himself into or be a strong character which then could be sort of opposed to what the player would like. Both have their advantages and disadvantages.
Fantastic Genre Fodder?
[Mr Creosote] The Jack Sparrow reference isn't even all that off. Not so much concerning the character himself, but indeed concerning the type of adventure our protagonist faces. 20 years before Mr Sparrow, this book mixes a good dose of fantasy into the usual pirate soup.
[LostInSpace] As already mentioned, this book uses material from a number of different sources. Maybe so that it doesn't quite look a compilation of pirate stories only, the fantasy elements were probably supposed to build an unusual, consistent foundation for all these adventure stories. For sure, the protagonist in this new world being a bad guy is really quite visionary in a book published long before Pirates of the Caribbean.
[Mr Creosote] For sure, as a kid, this appealed to me much more than taking the role of the usual knight in shining armour. The association with (basically "good") Hollywood pirates in the style of Errol Flynn was sufficiently stimulating for my imagination. And then, there were all these amazing scenes: fighting a large sea serpent, storming a fortress, hanging around in smoky harbour bars, diving for a shipwreck, a buried treasure chest… exactly what I wanted to see in such a book, and honest, still want I would like to see!
[LostInSpace] The multitude of such adventurous scenes is a strength of this novel for sure. The author even steps it one step further and experiments with the established fighting system later when meeting the cyclops. In this context, I also find the interactions such as participating in games of chance or selling slaves to be quite innovative considering the limitations of the medium.
[Mr Creosote] Variety is really on the strong side, with few exceptions. The world itself is really beyond criticism for me. Unlike almost any other gamebook, there are even small attempts to make it appear alive. Usually, everyone and everything is just waiting for the protagonist to waltz in and trigger something. In this sea, a barque follows its own course and so it will be at certain places at certain points of time, but if you miss those, you will not see it. Then, there are these two cities at war with each other and bam… suddenly your ship finds itself in the middle of the conflict. Even escape having only a narrow chance, as opposed to "heroically" boarding defenseless enemy ships. Last, but not least, although there are no explicit meetings with Abdul's ship, he has left some traces of his journey in the world as well.
[LostInSpace] Yes, ship travel between the islands can be checked on the list of innovations. The book even prints a map on one of the first pages to give an overview where you are right now. The danger is just that the game world is just artificial scenery. This was the impression I got when I finally reached the stronghold of Kish at the western shores. Sailing into the harbour was prevented by an iron chain spanning across the river. Any attempts to storm the fortress failed. I was at a literal dead end. Kish cannot be entered in this book.
Better for the Better?
[Mr Creosote] Meaning not everything will always go according to plan. In this context, I really liked how the book tricks cheaters: the seemingly "better" dice outcome is sometimes not actually the more positive one for the player. For example, you will be asked to compare a dice throw to your crew strength a couple of times to determine the number of days spent on a trip. This is important, because according to the bet, you must not take more than 50 days overall. So logically, the shorter trip length is preferable, right? Wrong: right at the beginning, you will meet a heavily armed war ship, but one day later, in the same place, there will be easy loot from a merchantman.
[LostInSpace] This is where the author could really have relaxed difficulty a bit and allowed for more days to explore, for example by increasing the day limit to 60 or 70. Of course, at some point, the limit would become meaningless. Though at least the player wouldn't be forced quite as much to optimise strictly right from the start and could have been more relaxed looking for loot.
[Mr Creosote] It is basically expected that you will pick up at least one of the magical supports for faster travel. Though at some point, all planning will be moot anyway. After two thirds or so, the book will ask you whether you have spent an even or an odd number of days overall so far. It would be impossible to "backtrack" and adapt this retroactively, because you can't possibly have that many fingers marking old sections you previously passed. On top, there isn't the ultimate path anyway. The book allows for victory on different routes.
[LostInSpace] Concerning difficulty, it shouldn't go unmentioned that basically all fights have to be won to even reach the ending. Fights with all kinds of monsters, ranging from flesh-eating trees, giant crabs, acid ball to Krell or Troglodytes, being all over the book.
[Mr Creosote] In addition to the classic one-on-one fights, there are also encounters at crew level, which are fought based on their own, but equivalent values. The initial establishing dice throws for crew strength and individual strength strongly influencing game strategy. Weak at swordplay, but many muscle-bound goons at hand? Off to seize some ships. The opposite? Then let's try to avoid such encounters.
[LostInSpace] Only the extremely brave among the players will dare to face those monstrous hordes armed just with two dice. Because a throwing those to fight is not only quite time intensive, but also very nerve-wracking, as those dice unfortunately tend to show unwanted numbers at times. So that even just a small stroke of bad luck eats up so many points of strength that the next fight against another, much stronger monster will be lost for sure. Only experienced gamblers will feel at home here.
[Mr Creosote] Fights are frequent for sure. However, I never had the impression to face a really unbeatable foe. The enemies are quite beatable and crew strength lost in the course of the travel can be refilled at various points. My impression was that you are supposed to play several times, but not in order to re-face the same, strong enemies, but rather in order to explore more of the world.
[LostInSpace] It is just that in some places, several opponents need to be beaten in a row before you receive any loot. At least you always have the option of running away. However, when you return to the place, all monsters will be there again as well and they have to be killed once more, so that escape doesn't make a lot of sense. Even if you may be successful in spite of all obstacles, the book has another nasty surprise in store: greed is punished. If you want to actually loot after slaughtering all the inhabitants of a small village, a pretty strong cavalry will come to the town's aid (141). Although beatable, there is no reward for winning.
[Mr Creosote] Each fight is quite balanced, I think. Concerning individual encounters, the whole book only contains six enemies which a skill of 10 or above. The ogre: a completely optional fight which is limited to few rounds and losing will not end the adventure; the shadow, the abbot and the salamander all have low strength; leaving the Roc and the Sith Orb. Those are indeed tough opponents, but at least the first can also be scared away using the whole crew in order to avoid the lonely fight.
[LostInSpace] The underlying question is really whether dice, meaning luck, should determine the outcome of a fight. At some point, everyone will have bad luck and then even those simple tests of luck can abrubtly put an end to the adventure. Which is why you will at some point begin to cheat by default. This takes all drama out of the fights.
[Mr Creosote] Alright, but these are the rules established since the first book of the series, and equivalent mechanics can be found in pretty much every other role-playing game. Sure, it can be criticised, but honestly, it won't lead anywhere. I do remember many other books which are much more frustrating in this respect. Books in which you shouldn't even bother to begin the adventure with anything below a skill of 11.
[LostInSpace] There is a game in which throwing dice to determine the outcome of fights really works, and that is Arcane Quest 2 – Dawn Of The Guild. There, this old dice concept isn't an obstacle at all, because of perfect balancing and a bad throw will not immediately mean the end. Even in that game, you should have some luck with the dice to get the best result. However, at least the game is separated into chapters/levels so that you won't have to start from scratch each time again. Those kinds of entry points are sorely missed in.
All the (Game) World's Riches!
[LostInSpace] In this book, even with an unbeatable stroke of luck, you also have to take exactly the right decisions to have sufficient loot. The book raises the bar pretty high: more than 800 pieces of gold. On my first run, using "invincibility" and at least six "save game" bookmarks, I nevertheless only just managed to get 600. You really have to know the book inside out to know which paths to take and then manage this under non-cheating conditions!
[Mr Creosote] Admittedly, there is one big random factor: the price your slaves will make towards the end will potentially make for the majority of your overall gold. This price unfortunately varies significantly and it does so based on a purely random dice throw. Trying to interpret this in a positive way, you could say that even after the tenth playthrough and knowing each section already, there is no guarantee to win.
LostInSpace The book is really unbalanced, isn't it?
[Mr Creosote] Concerning the outcome of the bet for sure. However, I consider the journey more important than its ending. The exciting adventures more than make up for the unspectacular ending (regardless of victory or defeat).
Final Battle and Words
[Mr Creosote] Talking about spectacular: you mentioned the final confrontation with the cyclops. How did you like it?
[LostInSpace] Good that you mention it. Within all this debate about luck when throwing dice, this is where Mr Chapman shows a way how to do such fight scenes completely differently. He just gives the player different options for how to attack in each section. For example: 1. bite the wrist 2. hit the back of the elbow or 3. kick the shoulder. Depending on the choice, the cyclops will suffer more or less. Strictly speaking, finding the right actions is a game of chance as well. Nevertheless, I really liked this approach. I would even go as far as saying that this one fight would have been sufficient for the complete book.
[Mr Creosote] Mechanically, this is quite good, yes! However, I have to agree with you on another level conerning this fight: it is completely unnecessary. It does not organically come from the plot at all! You have just landed on the island where the final meeting should take place to compare treasure. But first, you are supposed to fight another monster? For the sake of itself? There, my impression was really that it has only been included because someone felt there has to be a spectacular finale.
[LostInSpace] In the vein of a classic good vs. evil plot, Abdul could have been a traitor who would need to be defeated at the end instead of the cyclops. Afterwards, our hero could have – thinking this further – used his treasure to redeem himself and sail the seas as a respected captain again. This plot wouldn't have been nearly as over-constructed as a bet between two notorious pirates.
[Mr Creosote] Or Abdul could have simply not accepted his defeat and drawn his sword – there we are, appropriate finale. In this respect, I can for sure agree with your criticism of lacking consistent plot development. Nevertheless, this does not seriously hamper my overall still very positive impression. Sure, this is a very episodic book, but this also makes it quite varied. The player freedom, on a level unheard of at the time and in the genre, still convinces me today. Who knows how much of that is pure nostalgia? But at least I like to think that I have not done too horrible a job of retroactive rationalization of why I liked this book back then.
[LostInSpace] In my view, the pirate genre remains faceless in this book. A sustaining, strong impression is missing, or at least an interesting plot. On the other hand, a lot of things are done right, as the author really uses the medium's potential and on a purely mechanical level, everything is perfect. Still, my expectations have not nearly been fulfilled. I, too, really liked pirate stories as a child. But the pointedness I remember from back then – hooked hand, parrot sitting on the shoulder, rum bottle in hand, sabre shouldered, crooked teeth and long, unkempt hair – basically all those things which excited me back then, are completely missing here. This relegates even the greatest deep dive to search a wreck for treasure into just a small piece of a mosaic which never comes together to form a real pattern, but remains just a colourful, characterless collection of disconnected small stories.