The Second Swordsman – Your Adventure Ends Here
By Malcolm Garcia
At the start of last year I decided to test an idea – could I complete any FIGHTING FANTASY adventure by always choosing the second option? Many of the books in the series are notoriously difficult, punishing even the slightest deviation from the ‘one true path’ with an instant death or worse, not finding an essential key or jewel. But would the path to success ever be something as elementary as always making the second choice? Only the authors of those books would know, but could I discover their secret?
Having attempted 47 of the books in the series, the conclusion I’ve come to is (perhaps unsurprisingly) ‘no’. However, although every one of these adventures ended in my failure to find the treasure, protect myself, or kill the ‘Big Bad’ and save the world, I did find a lot of enjoyment and learned a few things along the way.
Lesson One. Curiosity might kill the cat, but a lack of it won’t help much either. In nearly every FIGHTING FANTASY book, choosing the second option meant I ignored opportunities to find treasure, discover special objects, or learn something that could help me in my quest. Just how much ignoring I did depended on the mechanics of the book. Where the choices were between doing something, or not doing something, there was a tendency for my character to race through the adventure, hoping that just getting to the end with my sword would be enough.
The very first adventure I tried to complete using the Second Swordsman method was The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, and during this attempt I blitzed past a total of nine doors. While some of these would have almost certainly contained dangers, and so I may have lived a little longer by avoiding them, I also gained nothing to help me later on. A similar fate befell me when trying Eye of the Dragon and Armies of Death where I, respectively, ignored a total of 13 doors and raced across northern Allansia to find Agglax without making any attempt to supplement the size of my eponymous army.
The Second Swordsman process also resulted in me racing across Stayng Island, in Keep of the Lich Lord, seemingly determined not to let any interesting caves or cemeteries distract me from reaching my goal, and I hurried through Port Blacksand when trying City of Thieves, ignoring all sorts of opportunities for adventure. In the one space-based FIGHTING FANTASY adventure I tried, Starship Traveller, following the process of choosing the second option led to me zooming from planet to planet, but nearly every time I decided not to beam-down and investigate (although when I did, I enjoyed killing the local fauna for food), but to instead travel to the next planet.
In both of my attempts at completing water-based adventures, using the second option meant I forwent several chances for diversions. In Demons of the Deep I avoided assisting the spirit of a sea captain and a dolphin being attacked by a shark and I never managed to learn anything about the black pearls and how they could be used to help me seek revenge. In Seas of Blood I made few attempts to find significant sources of treasure, such as not visiting the Dead City or exploring the Island of the Roc, and I seemed to focus more on the time limit part of the challenge with Abdul the Butcher, which meant that I hurried to my doom.
On other occasions the choices were set up to do either one thing, or do something else entirely. This was the case in Howl of the Werewolf. On almost every occasion where I was given the choice between embarking on a side quest, or pursuing my quarry, I chose the latter. Although this probably allowed me to live longer it also almost certainly kept me from some interesting encounters. On another adventure in the Old World, Dead of Night, I chose not to stick around and purify the graves of my parents and decided not to help some grieving villagers.
In some books there would be a ‘hub’, from where I could take turns to choose different sections of a location to explore, although I’d often then ignore most of the opportunities in each particular section. In Legend of Zagor the design of the adventure meant I probably visited every room in Castle Argent, but I didn’t subsequently search them with any vigour. And while looking for the mystery behind the Island of the Undead I went to most places on the island, but when given an opportunity to investigate closely, my usual choice was to move on quickly to the next location.
As mentioned above, all of my attempts at success by choosing the second option met with failure. And of those 47 attempts, on 11 occasions my death came about by fighting one of the very many creatures in the FIGHTING FANTASY universe. In just under half of these, I lost my life in a battle against an enemy that had a SKILL score of ten or greater; these probably account for less than 15 per cent of all FIGHTING FANTASY creatures. The Fire Elemental in Stormslayer was not only strong, but while under Mount Pyre I was impeded by a two-point SKILL penalty, which made defeat almost inevitable. Legend of Zagor’s SKILL twelve Thief was an unusual encounter that in hindsight I feel should have been avoided. The same goes for the Giant Sandworm in Temple of Terror, unless I missed a SKILL-enhancing weapon. The Kraken in Demons of the Deep had the added complication of an almost insurmountable STAMINA score of 30. Against the Doppelganger in Eye of the Dragon I should have had a chance, if not for some poor dice rolls and a two point SKILL penalty.
However it didn’t always take a strong enemy to best me. There were some fights I just wasn’t meant to win. Beneath Castle Heydrich, in Vault of the Vampire, my SKILL was inhibited by two in a fight against the Stench Ghoul, and so it ate me. Although I managed to find the Minotaur in The Warlock of Firetop Mountain’s labyrinth, the dice went against me one too many times, as it did in a skirmish against a Baboon in Curse of the Mummy and a Knight in Fangs of Fury. The Fighting Slave in Trial of Champions was just dastardly, particularly since there were no opportunities to recover STAMINA from my earlier trials. And in Phantoms of Fear I was defeated by the worst enemy of all – myself.
Although when I lost a fight, it was often against a powerful enemy, I also defeated my fair share of strong creatures. Both the Swamp Mutant and Warrior King didn’t survive their encounters with me in Battleblade Warrior. Nor did the Fog Wyvern and Skeletal Dragon in Legend of Zagor. I lasted long enough against the Kauderwelsch Monster in Moonrunner to be rescued by a prison riot. While I didn’t last long in Chasms of Malice, I did take out one of the seven Khuddam before I fell and I bested the Easterner in Trial of Champions. The Sith Orb, in Seas of Blood, remains one of the strangest encounters I ever had, but while it was strong, I was stronger. And in Caverns of the Snow Witch, I faced and defeated the big three of the Yeti, the Frost Giant, and the White Dragon. And while it didn’t have a high SKILL score, I still detest the Vampire Weasel for its endless series of cheap shots that drained seven of my STAMINA points in Vault of the Vampire.
In some of the later adventures in the series I noticed that the book’s authors added more fights earlier on. Whether this was to get the reader accustomed to the combat process sooner, or to weed out weak characters is unclear. But in Howl of the Werewolf, Stormslayer, Bloodbones, Spellbreaker and Curse of the Mummy I had battles within three choices of section one (coincidentally these were all written by Jonathan Green*). Caverns of the Snow Witch was the first book in which I noticed this early-combat element (against the Mammoth), but it was also used in Phantoms of Fear, Stealer of Souls, Tower of Destruction and Island of the Undead – the latter three being authored by Keith Martin.
Usually the longer I survived, the more fights I would have. In Battleblade Warrior, Howl of the Werewolf and Stormslayer I faced off against 22 individual enemies. While in Legend of Zagor and Phantomsof Fear I had 16 such encounters. A noticeable exception to this was that while I didn’t very last long in Creature of Havoc, I did manage to fight a total of nine creatures.
Lesson Three. Choosing the second option doesn’t mean dying within seconds. Yes, choosing the second option led me to an instant death within one choice in Beneath Nightmare Castle – but it was a memorable ending! And I was dead within two choices in Master of Chaos, Scorpion Swamp and Crypt of the Sorcerer. But in the last two of that trio it was a failed LUCK test that killed me instantly. And within four choices I’d failed in Island of the Lizard King as I made a cowardly run from the Giant Crab that had grabbed poor Mungo.
But the second option didn’t always doom me to an early end. And when I did get a long way, my failure was usually from one of the aforementioned difficult fights, rather than an instant death. Unfortunately, when I did get a long way, because I’d usually ignored things along the journey it was unlikely I’d have what I needed to get closer to the end, or to win. Having said all that, I came so very close to victory using the Second Swordsman process in two of the 47 FIGHTING FANTASY books I attempted.
In Battleblade Warrior, I fought my way through the siege of Vymorna, survived the perils of the plains and jungles beyond (by riding on a lizard, battling a dozen lizard men, and visiting an orc funeral), and journeyed into the lost city of Kharnek, and found part of the mystical sword I had been seeking. After slaying the Warrior King I left aside his jewelled crown and kept going. But because I inexplicably ignored that jewel, I was instantly killed by a traitor within sight of the end.
After being attacked at the very start of Howl of the Werewolf I battled my way across Lupravia, usually sticking to the path which would lead me Castle Wulfenstein. Along the way, amongst other things, I stayed clear of a local carnival, participated in a futile beast hunt, and ignored a creepy hole in the basement of a crypt. I also picked up some useful were-skills that helped me in the numerous fights I had. When I arrived at the castle I slew everyone in my path and bested Count Varcolac. But he then came back to life in demon form and, because I didn’t find the sword that was hidden deeper in the crypt I’d avoided earlier, I was instantly killed.
Along with the aforementioned early failures, choosing the second option did give me some other memorable instant-deaths. In Starship Traveller I captained my crew into a black hole from which we never re-emerged, and in Masks of Mayhem I walked into some fog and disappeared from the face of Titan forever. In Moonrunner I succumbed to a poisoned letter, and although Deathtrap Dungeon is renowned for being filled with a multitude of fiendish traps and beasts, I failed because I ate some fungus that made me grow bigger. While searching for a medallion in another labyrinth, this one in Daggers of Darkness, having to roll a dice too many times resulted in me being impaled by a spear trap. And in House of Hell following the second-choice path meant that I chose to go into the kitchens where, although I finally found a weapon, I was set upon by a ghoul who I killed, but not before the residents of the house were alerted to my presence and I was captured, to be subjected to an unspeakable fate.
As stated at the start of this post, Malcolm's final Second Swordsman post is so long that we will be publishing Part 2 next week. So don't forget to bookmark this site and make sure you're here in seven days' time...
* Or perhaps un-coincidentally - The Warlock.
* Or perhaps un-coincidentally - The Warlock.