The Second Swordsman – More of Martin’s Mêlées
By Malcolm Garcia
After the recent enjoyment of exploring Castle Heydrich in Vault of the Vampire, I chose to have a go at a few other adventures which had been written by its author, Keith Martin (the writing alias of Carl Sargent). I’d previously tried the Second Swordsman process in his books Stealer of Souls (where I found my way into the Empire of Illusions beyond the Iron Crypts), Night Dragon (where I actually got to encounter several dragons) and Legend of Zagor (where I survived for quite some time before being killed by a thief with an unusually high SKILL). This time I would see whether always choosing the second option would lead to similar longevity in Martin’s Island of the Undead, Master of Chaos and Tower of Destruction.
Island of the Undead, illustrated inside by the prolific Russ Nicholson, started well enough, with some promising numbers and a Presence score to keep track of. Some of Martin’s other books also have extra scores to influence the gameplay – the Faith value in Vault and the Honour, Nemesis and Time values in Night. I did, however, start Island with just a knife for a weapon, which imposed not only a SKILL penalty, but also made it likely I’d inflict only half my usual STAMINA damage. I’m not usually a fan of these sorts of impediments, but I suppose they do mean you’re more likely to fail early if you don’t find the right gear, rather than wasting time marching to your inevitable doom.
The backstory has YOU on a ship en route to the Island of Solani to investigate why storms have returned to your village on the Strait of Knives in southeastern Allansia. The vessel sinks and section one has YOU immediately thrown into a battle against a Sea Zombie. While a fight at the very start is what I’d usually expect in a Jonathan Green adventure, Stealer also had a similar early fight – and that was against the much harder Giant Stormbird. After winning this skirmish I started exploring the island, but it became obvious pretty quickly that always choosing the second option meant I was aimlessly wandering around and missing out on opportunities to find information or objects that would assist me in my quest. Not only did I fail to find a sword, but I didn’t find a book about fungi, I never learned the name of a hermit who lived in a tree, I had no special green cream, and I neglected to explore a monastery when given the opportunity.
Because I chose to attack the aforementioned hermit I contracted the lung rot disease which eroded my STAMINA and, while not immediately fatal, was an annoyance. Other than the aforementioned Sea Zombie I only managed to defeat one other adversary, the tree-dwelling Grupplers (sort of a cross between a monkey and a frog), but not before my lung rot cost me some more STAMINA. Soon afterwards I fell into some swamp water and, while I didn’t drown instantly (as I did in Scorpion Swamp), an unlucky dice roll meant I was eaten by a Swamp Alligator during the middle of a fight against it.
In my attempt at Master of Chaos (which coincidentally had the same ranking in the Fighting Fantazine poll as Island) my starting scores were again decent, but once again there were some penalties to apply. The adventure started with YOU going undercover as a galley slave on a ship bound for Khul, thus earning Martin the rare trifecta of having a book set on each of the three continents of Titan. Once there YOU are expected to find your way to the desert ruins of the city of Kabesh, where a magical staff has been taken. While going undercover YOU possess no weapons, which means that in any fight your Attack Strength will be reduced by two, and you’ll do less damage to an opponent if you do manage to strike them. I also had a Notoriety score to keep track of, which measured how much attention I was attracting from local law enforcement, as well as selecting three special skills of my own choosing.
The adventure began with me losing eight STAMINA relatively quickly, partly because of the meagre rations and also because I chose to try and stop a shipmate from being whipped to death. When, soon after, I was given the choice to confront the orc wielding the whip, I did so. And while the orc was killed in the ensuring slave uprising, I was made to walk the plank and (unlike in Demons of the Deep where being forced into the ocean was the beginning of my journey) I soon became the meal for a shark. No treasure. No battles. No knowledge. While dead in just two choices isn’t quite as bad as what happened in Beneath Nightmare Castle, it was a very poor showing. So far, all I had learned was that choosing the second option in both of Martin’s books would result in me being eaten by some of the local fauna.
Returning to the frozen north of Allansia, for the first time since Caverns of the Snow Witch, I began Tower of Destruction with poor initial SKILL and LUCK scores, but mercifully no penalties to my SKILL. Tower does, however, also add Honour and Time values to keep track of. While returning to my village, which sits in the shadow of the Icefinger Mountains, an unusual sphere hurtled through the air and attacked my hometown. Pledging revenge on the sphere, I didn’t leave straight away and chose to linger just long enough to find some climbing equipment, but not helping anyone else earned an early penalty to my Honour – although it would be pretty unlikely that just one person could help an entire village. After being forced to eat my first meal (a process that would soon become irritating) I had my first fight against a Polar Worm. My adversary had a greater SKILL than I, but my higher STAMINA paid off and I defeated the creature, although it did take eleven rounds of combat.
After this initial excitement, my adventure in Tower fell into a routine of following a trail of burned trees while I slept, and ate my way through my provisions. Something similar happened during my attempt at Night, but in Tower the process was much duller – when given the chance to encounter a White Dragon (a creature I’d killed when I found one in Caverns) I instead chose to hide in a cave for a whole day and night, which wasted two meals. Eventually I started eating my meals unprompted, figuring that the penalty for not having a meal when forced to eat was less than what I would gain from eating one. Within a handful of days I found the mysterious sphere and had to fight two Ice Ghost guards. What should have been a fight against two easy enemies was made more difficult by my poor initial SKILL and that, because I must have missed a useful weapon somewhere, my sword only did half the usual damage against the pair of creatures.
I did eventually win the battle and ate my last meal to recover, just as I was attacked by a Demonic Servant. This creature had the same SKILL as me and I left the battle with just five STAMINA remaining and little chance of finding any more local wildlife to eat and rejuvenate myself. But I had at last reached the sphere! As I explored the inside of the device, choosing the second option did not help me to find any useful information or objects and I wandered pointlessly along corridors and up and down stairs. Eventually I did just my second LUCK test of the book and, lacking a special ring, failing this test meant that a trap of fire darts relieved me of my remaining STAMINA. A painful death, but at least I wasn’t eaten this time.
Across these three books of Keith Martin’s, choosing every second option may have made me a nice person but it clearly did not work at all in Master, and in Island I fell into the usual Second Swordsman habit of wandering around aimlessly and ignoring things. Being eaten by a Swamp Alligator actually came as a welcome surprise. My failure in Tower was inevitable given my lack of food and hard fights, but it also reinforced the importance of LUCK, which is often overlooked as a factor in the success of any FIGHTING FANTASY adventure. For although a poor LUCK roll in Tower just helped to finish me off after some difficult battles, in Scorpion failing a single LUCK test actually ended the adventure for me.
Thanks, as ever, to Malcolm for taking the time to chronicle his adventure as the Second Swordsman. This is his penultimate Second Swordsman article for a while, as he has some other writing projects he needs to focus on in the coming months, so I am sure you are just as intrigued as we are as to what the subject of next month's piece will be...