by Ryan N. Cross
This article is the first of my series of articles reviewing the Lone Wolf books. Each review will include my opinions on each book, as well as my opinion on the difficulty of the book for solo play (meaning you start on that book) and campaign play (meaning you've played the series in order). Each book will receive ratings in the categories of Plot, Writing, Gameplay, and Overall (an average of the other three ratings), which will allow books from the series to be compared to one another. In this article, I'll be reviewing the first two books of the Lone Wolf series: Flight from the Dark and Fire on the Water.
The following is an explanation of the various categories included in my gamebook reviews.
Name: The full name of the book in the format of series - number - title. For example, "Lone Wolf #1: Flight from the Dark."
Author: Who's responsible for the narrative.
Summary: A brief plot summary of the book. This may contain a few minor spoilers, but major spoilers will be avoided.
A Word About the Rating System: This rating system is designed to allow comparison between the Lone Wolf books and the main categories within each (plot, writing, gameplay, and experience). As such it does reflect how enjoyable the book is, but the system assumes that a rating of 1 (the lowest rating) is still pretty good compared to much of what's out there besides Lone Wolf. In other words, the reviews grade how well each book stands up to the standards of the Lone Wolf series, which are fairly high. Reviews that rate everything highly ignore the purpose of giving numerical ratings to categories: to provide a quick way to see the quality of a category or book compared to other similar categories or books. If everything gets rated nearly the same, comparisons can't be made easily; keep in mind that 3 means average. A rating of 1 doesn't mean "bad" since there aren't any bad Lone Wolf books. Instead, a rating of 3 indicates a book of average quality for the Lone Wolf series, a rating of 1 indicates a book of okay quality for the Lone Wolf series, and a rating of 5 indicates a book of excellent quality for the Lone Wolf series.
Plot: A numerical score from 1 to 5 that rates how interesting and well developed the overall plot for the book is. Was the overall mission in the book an interesting, new, unique, and varied one? Were the plot´s twists, if any, surprising and did they add to the plot? Has this kind of plot been seen before a hundred times or is it creative and original? A rating of 1 means that the book's plot is underdeveloped and needed more work, a rating of 3 means that the plot is average in depth and intrigue, and a rating of 5 means that the plot is excellent and exceedingly well-crafted.
Writing: A numerical score from 1 to 5 that rates how well written the book is and the overall quality of the book's writing. This is not to be confused with the Plot rating. While Plot refers to the overall story of the book, Writing refers to the quality of each entry and the prose itself. Are the entries terse or do they continue with just the right amount of detail (or too much detail)? Is attention paid to details that supplement the plot and/or make the reader feel more immersed in the world of Magnamund? Does the writing evoke the proper emotions for each entry and keep the reader interested in the book? A rating of 1 means that the writing of the book leaves something to be desired, a rating of 3 means that the writing is average, and a rating of 5 means that the writing is excellent.
Gameplay: A numerical score from 1 to 5 that rates how well the gameplay in the book is designed and how well it works in practice. This is an important category, since its what makes gamebooks like Lone Wolf different from normal reading material and a book with poor or unbalanced gameplay can become unplayable and unreadable very quickly. Does the book make good use of the fact that it's a gamebook (i.e. do you feel like you have a large influence on your character's fate, or do you feel like you're reading a normal book that says "Turn to [number]" every few pages)? Is the gameplay fair and balanced? Does the gameplay introduce new features and make good use of reoccurring ones? Are the combats challenging but beatable with skill and intelligence or at least avoidable? And most importantly, is the book winnable or do you have to resort to cheating to finish it? A rating of 1 means that the book either plays too much like a normal book and not a gamebook or that gameplay problems severely hurt the book, a rating of 3 means that the gameplay is average, and a rating of 5 means that the book is a quintessential example of why gamebooks are so much fun.
Overall: A numerical score from 1 to 5 that rates the overall rating for the book. This is determined by averaging the other three scores (Plot, Writing, and Gameplay). This provides an estimate on how well the book rates with the others and how good a book it is. Keep in mind that even more than the other ratings, this should be taken with a grain of salt, since opinions may vary. Generally, you can think of ratings of most books as accurate within a point (e.g. a book rated 3 overall might be rated 2 or 4 by others depending on who you ask).
Solo Play Difficulty: The difficulty of book if you are starting and playing only it (e.g. if you start reading the Lone Wolf series on book 5 and thus start from scratch in that book). In theory completing the previous books in a series isn't necessary for victory, but often it is harder to win without the experience. From easiest to hardest, the difficulty ratings are: Easiest (requires little or no thought to finish successfully), Easy (a little work makes finishing this book no problem), Normal (average difficulty - it'll take some thought and wise choices to win, but shouldn't be a major problem), Hard (a player who isn't careful is likely to wind up dead - patience and critical thinking is definitely perquisite here), and Hardest (the book can be downright vicious at times, testing the skills of even seasoned players).
Campaign Play Difficulty: The difficulty of a book if you have played all the previous books in the series (e.g. if you are reading book 5 of the Lone Wolf series and have read books 1 through 4 with your current character). Campaign Play is generally easier than Solo Player, but there may be times where it is a drawback rather than an advantage. From easiest to hardest, the difficult ratings are: Easiest, Easy, Normal, Hard, and Hardest (see the description of Solo Play Difficulty for a more detailed explanation of what each rating means).
Character Strength Notes: This category notes how much more difficult a book is made if the player is playing with a weak character (base Combat Skill: 10-13, base Endurance Points: 20-23), or how much easier it is made if the player is playing with a strong character (CS: 17-19, EP: 27-29). The Solo Play Difficulty and the Campaign Play Difficulty categories assume you are playing a median strength character (CS: 14-16, EP: 24-26)
Flight from the Dark Review
Name: Lone Wolf #1: Flight from the Dark
Author: Joe Dever
Summary: You are a member of the Kai Lords, a group of warrior monks who are the pride of Sommerlund. A devastating sneak attack on your monastery by your nation's ancient enemies, the Darklords, has killed all your fellow Kai Lords. Only you now remain; you are now the last of the Kai Lords. Your name is now no longer "Silent Wolf"; you are now "Lone Wolf." As war sweeps the country, you must make a desperate journey to Holmgard, the capital city of Sommerlund, so that you may warn the king of the danger now facing Sommerlund. You must journey quickly but carefully, for the countryside is teeming with forces of the Darklords.
Plot: The overall plot in Flight from the Dark is pretty simple. Your mission is to reach the Holmgard and warn the king as quickly as possible. Your mission objectives never change. If you meet Banedon, you'll learn that Sommerlund may have been betrayed by an ex-magician of Toran named Vonotar. Also, as you journey through Sommerlund, it becomes obvious pretty quickly that the Darklords have moved to all out war with Sommerlund. While this is a good beginning for the Lone Wolf series, the plot could have been improved with more plot twists. Perhaps the forces of the Darklords discover Lone Wolf has escaped and send out a search party to kill him? Lone Wolf could run into them in the middle of his journey and be forced to flee them throughout the book or confront them. On a simpler note, perhaps Lone Wolf discovers a large portion of the Darklord's army moving toward the capital or another location. His journey would then become even more urgent, as he would need to arrive before the army and warn the king and his forces of their imminent arrival. Overall, the plot in Flight from the Dark has a good basis, but needed more complications and plot twists.
Writing: The writing in Flight from the Dark is well done, but it can be very terse. Some sections are only a sentence or two long and this gives the book a short overall length. While many of these short sections were probably needed because of the complex variety of paths that connect in this book, more description could have been inserted in many sections. We don't get as good of a feel for the land of Sommerlund, now in disarray because of unexpected war. The book is thinner than most Lone Wolf books due to the short sections, and this could have been compensated for by adding additional sections, thus lengthening the journey. Overall, the writing in Flight from the Dark is a promising start, but lacking in length and description.
Gameplay: Hands down, the best aspect of Flight from the Dark is its gameplay. There are many paths that can be taken in the book, which are interconnected in a geographical manner. This means that playing through the book feels to a large extent like journeying through Sommerlund. An example of what the gameplay is like is that on one trip you might take a northern path to a small town, passing through many locals, while on another trip, you might arrive at the same town after taking a southern path through many different areas. The plot doesn't hinder this journey feeling greatly, since it allows the player to journey about freely until the middle of the book, where the player must either face the Gourgaz or ride on the merchant coach.
While the paths are well designed, some of the Kai Disciplines are neglected and almost worthless. There isn't much point to pick Mind Over Matter or Animal Kinship in this book, as they are only used a handful of times, most of which are easy to avoid or miss. Also, while it's possible to accumulate a good amount of Gold Crowns in the book, there isn't really any way to use them besides saving them for the next book. The book is a bit too easy, even considering it's the first book in the series. I would have preferred combats to be more difficult, since most can be avoided with smart choices and disciplines. Still, Flight from the Dark is one of the books that you'll find yourself playing multiple times to experience the many different paths. Each time you play, Flight from the Dark is truly different until you've played it a lot of times, provided you make different choices when necessary. This kind of variety is lacking in many of the later books.
Overall: Flight from the Dark is good start to the Lone Wolf series and understandably concentrates on gameplay rather than story. Flight from the Dark showed that the idea of the Lone Wolf gamebook series was viable and could be a lot of fun. The book makes for a good deal of multiple paths to explore, but its actual plot is less interesting. It serves as a nice introduction to the Lone Wolf series, but doesn't have the same quality that later books do.
-Ratings at a Glance-
Solo Play Difficulty: Easy
Campaign Play Difficulty: Easy
Solo Play Difficulty: Easy. Despite the fact that you are ill prepared for the journey to Holmgard, this book will not prove to be a very difficult one. The key to success is, as the Kai Wisdom section notes, "a wise choice of Kai Disciplines and a great deal of courage." More important than Kai Disciplines in this mission is the ability to make wise choices. If you're playing a weaker character or want to ensure you make it through the mission alive, then you should avoid combat, since you are only occasionally forced into a combat that can't be avoided. Even more bellicose players should be able to survive combats, provided they have a high enough Combat Skill (15+ should suffice) and the Kai Discipline of Healing. Most deaths in this book will be of the "your life and mission end here" variety. There are multiple traps and perils in the book, but if you keep alert and move wisely, you shouldn't have too much of a problem.
Most players will be able to successfully complete the book after a few tries. The ease of this book makes sense, however, since this is the first book of the series and should provide a fairly easy introduction into the series for new players. The book also shows the player that they will have to exercise caution and make difficult choices in this and coming mission, not just for their own safety, but for others' safety as well. Is it worth risking your overall mission (make it to capital and speak with the king) to help a soldier in distress or aid the inhabitants of a besieged village? To be successful, a Kai Lord must learn his own limitations and make wise and sometimes difficult decisions.
Campaign Play Difficulty: Easy. Since this is the first book of the Lone Wolf series, Solo Play and Campaign Play have no difficulty differences.
Character Strength Notes: As always, it is preferable to have a strong character, but this isn't necessary at all to complete Flight from the Dark. While you roll up your stats, you don't roll up your own intellect and decision-making from which most of this book's difficulty comes. Weak characters must be sure to exercise caution when potentially confronted with combat, especially if they don't choose Healing as a Kai Discipline (remember, the Kai Wisdom section specifically says that a wise choice of disciplines is very important for victory).
Most of all, a weak character should not face the Gourgaz (thankfully, the book doesn't force you too). A character with CS 13 and current EP 23 has only a 12.7% chance of defeating the Gourgaz and it's likely that even a stealthy player will have lost some Endurance Points from combat or other perils by this point in the book. A player with CS 10 and EP 20 when they face the Gourgaz only has a 1.4% chance of success! Despite how valiant coming to the prince's aid is, those odds are simply unacceptable for a Kai Lord on an important mission. On a related note, a character with Combat Skill 15 and Endurance Points 25 when they face the Gourgaz has a 50.4% chance of success and character with Combat Skill 19 and Endurance Points 29 has a 99.4% chance of success.
Fire on the Water Review
Name: Lone Wolf #2: Fire on the Water
Author: Joe Dever
Summary: You, Lone Wolf, last of the Kai Lords, have successfully journeyed to Holmgard and informed the king of the tragic fate of the other late Kai Lords. The king is grateful for your dedication and bravery to journey through such danger, but your work is not done yet. As the last Kai Lord, you are now the sole hope for your besieged nation. You must now journey to the country of Durenor, ally of Sommerlund, where the Sommerswerd rests in the Hammerdal, the capital of Durenor. You have great need for the power of the Sommerswerd and the aid of Durenor to drive away the invading armies of the Darklords. Your journey may be more difficult than it seems though, for if the Darklords were to discover the intent of your journey, surely they would stop at nothing to prevent your success...
Plot: Fire on the Water has a much better plot than Flight from the Dark. Whereas almost the entire plot for Flight from the Dark was summed up in the Story So Far (save a bit of foreshadowing from Banedon if you happen to meet him), Fire on the Water has more plot twists and is a more uncertain journey. The basic mission is, of course, to get to Hammerdal and acquire the Sommerswerd and Durenor's help, but things start to go wrong from the start. Lone Wolf was stealthy moved onto one ship, which would journey alone and without extra protection, since secrecy was obviously hoped for. Unfortunately, the Darklords seem to have heard the plan and things go downhill for Lone Wolf from there, including his first shipwreck. Attentive readers who have read Flight from the Dark several times may link the Vonotar plot with the breach of security for this mission, although others probably won't realize it. A good story shouldn't be obvious, though, and the Vonotar plot is one of the first times we see Joe Dever's advanced planning of the series pay off.
The plot does end abruptly, however. The destruction of Darklord Zagarna is impressive, but the reader can't aid or hinder it. The ending should have been a bit more involved and difficult, or at least expanded. Still, the major noticeable problem with the plot is that it is gets old quickly after the first reading. Because the gameplay is pretty linear, this becomes obvious pretty quickly and you won't find yourself rereading the book much; this is very noticeable, since it is a great contrast to Flight from the Dark's fresh gameplay each time over plot style. Nonetheless, Fire on the Water is a good read the first time around. It's more like a novel in which a few of the specifics change each time than the type of gamebook that Flight from the Dark was.
Writing: More attention to detail is paid in Fire on the Water than in Flight from the Dark and the book is larger, despite also having the series standard of 350 sections. This helps you feel more involved in the book and more a part of the world of Magnamund than in Flight from the Dark. Still, the detail isn't up to par with later adventures, though it does represent a tangible step in the right direction. The occasional supporting characters in the book aren't developed very much, though I did like Lord-Lieutenant Rhygar and thought he had the makings of an interesting character. It's too bad he had to die at the end in a futile and not very emotional (for the reader) way.
The subplot in which you must determine your would-be assassin could have been good, but besides the fact that your choice has no impact on the rest of the plot, your traveling companions aren't developed enough for the choice to be based on much more than a hunch or feeling. Personally, I felt that it was obvious the priest was your would-be assassin, even though I totally missed the snake tattoo on his arm (which instantly gives it away if seen). It would have been nicer if some hints and red herrings had been written in, to make the choice more meaningful. Oh yeah, is it just me, or does it seem odd that Sixth Sense doesn't nudge you in the right direction at all? Wait, that's a gameplay problem... To summarize, the writing of Fire on the Water is a much-needed step forward from Flight from the Dark's terse writing and it will improve throughout the series.
Gameplay: The main problem with Fire on the Water is that its gameplay needs improvement. It seems that Joe Dever wanted to add more detail and depth to the plot than Flight from the Dark had, but wasn't quite skilled enough yet to pull it off and keep great gameplay. The gameplay in Fire on the Water is very linear. Random number choices early on and a few alternate choices provide some variety for later readings, but the story moves forward in the exact same direction each reading. It would have been nice to have some points where the overarching could have been altered. Fire on the Water does allow for more opportunities to spend Gold Crowns, though it's harder to get them and easy to loose them all then in Flight from the Dark. It's disappointing that one of the main subplots, discovering your potential assassin, isn't handled well. The book proceeds on the same route whether or not you attack the correct person. On the positive side though, I very much like passage 221, which occurs if you decide to slaughter the town guard. It's a very nice way to say that there is a time to evade and that you should think before you go combat happy.
Because of the linearity, the Kai Disciplines really aren't used that much or that useful, save for one that can be vital for survival out of the blue... That leads us to Fire on the Water's major gameplay flaw: the tunnel to Hammerdal. You must have Animal Kinship (which most players probably won't have, since it was almost no use in Flight from the Dark, save to avoid one dangerous stranger) or the Magic Spear to continue. If not, you die. "Magic Spear? Huh?" is what many players will probably ask the first time (and likely first few times) they play this book. It's very easy to avoid getting the Magic Spear, since you have to take a particular path to get to the Helghast that has it and even then your disciplines will warn you to leave immediately, before you know about the spear. Adding to the annoyance is the fact that there are several variant ways to die without the spear. This could have been handled in a better and fairer way. As it is, it's a cheap way to raise the difficulty and force the player to play through the book again (and hopefully pick Animal Kinship or stumble on the wounded Helghast and have the lack of sense necessary to confront it and get the spear). Sadly, Fire on the Water becomes less fun each time you replay it...
Overall: You might have noticed that the Plot and Written categories weigh more than the single Gameplay category. Plot and Written are obviously related categories and so this might seem to unfairly slant the Overall rating toward books with good writing. Indeed, Fire on the Water manages to rate a bit higher overall than Flight from the Dark even with its poor gameplay. However, the story aspects of the book must be sufficiently interesting to make the gameplay worthwhile. While Flight from the Dark has good gameplay, it lacks the story to support it and the book suffers because of this. Ideally, a book should have a strong story and strong gameplay that work hand-in-hand to better the gameplay, which is why there are two story categories and one gameplay category. Without the story, playing the gameplay feels somewhat hollow. Fire on the Water suffers a very noticeable drop in gameplay from Flight from the Dark and without it the book is great the first time around, but quickly becomes old as it is reread.
-Ratings at a Glance-
Solo Play Difficulty: Normal
Campaign Play Difficulty: Normal
Solo Play Difficulty: Normal. This book should have been rated Easy, but late in the book most players will find themselves killed a few times because of an unfair requirement to continue (this is detailed in the Gameplay section). Players who lose the Seal of Hammerdal may find themselves doomed from early on as well. In both these cases, it can be aggravating to get so far and have been doomed from early on (failure from losing the Seal of Hammerdal makes sense, though the former is unfair). Besides those cases, the book isn't that difficult. You can get into some tight spots if you loose your Gold Crowns, but the book gives you opportunities to get more. The linearity of the plot and gameplay means that that besides aforementioned trouble spots, you shouldn't have much of a problem succeeding. Combats aren't overly difficult and can be avoided if necessary. Fire on the Water is an easy book made more difficult by a few poorly planned gameplay aspects.
Campaign Play Difficulty: Normal. Players who are continuing from a success Flight from the Dark adventure have some advantages over new players. The extra Kai Discipline is helpful, if not here but for later books as well, and it means one more chance of picking the discipline that could get you past one of the trouble points. You won't get far before you'll lose at least your weapons and possibly more. If you manage to keep the Gold Crowns you carry over from the first book, some parts of the book will be made easier, but this isn't really necessary. A returning player is only a little less likely to run into the trouble spots, which are the main difficulty in Fire on the Water, than a new player.
Character Strength Notes: Weak characters may take damage from some of the combats that are harder to avoid, but Healing will help them recover. Most of the other dangerous combats can be avoided with skill and the right disciplines (e.g. camouflage). Strong players will be better able to cope with losing their weapons for a time and won't have to worry much about being killed if they don't overdo it in combat, especially if they have Healing. Like the first book, smart choices and, unlike the first book, some luck (unfortunately) is more necessary for victory than starting stats.
Your Own Two Cents
If you have your own opinions on Flight from the Dark and Fire on the Water, and you probably do, I'd love it if you'd send them in to me. Just type up your own thoughts on the Ratings (numerical score and descriptions) and/or Difficulty sections (you can even write up your own version of the book summary if you're so inclined), and then send them to <mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org>email@example.com. It would be best if you concentrated on telling me what aspects of the reviews you concur with and why, as well as what aspects you beg to differ on and why, but that's not required. Your comments can be as short or long as you'd like. I'll include any of your submissions with next issue's review column. I hope to hear your thoughts!
The preceding reviews might seem a bit critical, but keep in mind that it took a bit for the Lone Wolf series to warm up and start to excel. Expect to see reviews on a great deal more books in the Lone Wolf series in the next Reviewing Magnamund article. I also plan to review the World of Lone Wolf series at some point and possibly the Legends of Lone Wolf series (depending mostly on how well I do collecting them). Don't forget to send me your own opinions on the preceding books, so that I can include them next issue.
Lone Wolf © TM Joe Dever 1984-2000.