Wednesday, February 2, 2011

House of Hell

In the gaming world there are two famous Steve Jacksons, and believe it or not both contributed books to the Fighting Fantasy series. The one who wrote House of Hell and The Warlock of Firetop Mountain’s the one who founded Games Workshop, and was, in my opinion, one of the more creative writers for the series. In his first, Citadel of Chaos, he was already playing with the rules system by giving your character the ability to cast magic spells. He continued to do new things in his books, like setting them outside the swords-and-sorcery milieu that dominated the series. Like in modern-day Earth.

For readers offended by the word "hell," but not satanic cults and human sacrifice.

Driving on deserted backroads in heavy rainstorms in the middle of the night always ends in tears. As you’re speeding along, desperate to make your appointment the next day, you swerve to avoid someone in the road and total your car. The only possible source of help is a rundown old mansion, and while the master of the house warmly welcomes you at first, it doesn’t take a genius to know something evil’s going on.

Was the artist inspired by Guyver or something?

Being set in a spooky old house filled with supernatural dangers, House of Hell was the first book in the series to add a statistic representing your ability to stand up to fear. It’s pretty crude, this being the first time, though. You have a score from 7-12 and gradually add points as scary things happen. Once you reach or exceed the number, you’ve been scared to death. There’s really no way to see them coming, and since this is a Steve Jackson book (more on that in a minute), you’ll have to explore a lot which you’ll be hesitant to do if you didn’t roll high.

Have 3 Fear for looking out the window.
For that matter, Fighting Fantasy would usually penalize your combat skill score if you didn’t have a weapon. And since this happens on twentieth century Earth, you have to find one somewhere in the house before you’ll actually be able to use the score you rolled before you started reading.

Have 3 Fear for being silly enough to think you could walk out the front door.

However, besides taking the books in previously unattempted directions, a hallmark of Steve Jackson’s books was having one, and only one, correct path through each adventure with little wiggle room. Which was never easy to find. House of Hell is the first book to show this tendency, and boy does it show it. Even if you roll extremely well, unless you know when and were to find all the clues and special items you need, you’ll eventually die without stopping the evil in the house. In most of the books you at least have a chance if you survive far enough even if you didn’t find the one optimal path.

The good news is there aren’t many special items you’ll need, and there are plenty of interesting things to see while you’re learning where and where not to go. Maybe not the wide variety you’d see in an Ian Livingstone dungeon crawl, but believe me when I say that’s a good thing. There’s plenty of fantastic stuff in this book, but nothing you wouldn’t reasonably expect to be associated with an evil cult. The atmosphere is strong and the writing not bad throughout. Not so much as in Howl of the Werewolf, but there’s no doubt it’s a cut above the other early Fighting Fantasy books.

While triumphing will require a lot of attempts and note-taking, more so than most in the series, I highly recommend this book. Jackson did an overall commendable job of taking Fighting Fantasy somewhere it hadn’t been before. Just don’t read it with the lights off.

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