Grailquest 1 - The Castle of Darkness by J.H. Brennan
on Friday 12 October 2007
by Areala author list print the content item create pdf file of the content item
in Reviews > Tabletop Gaming Reviews
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author awarded score: 95/100
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Solo gamebooks were all the rage in the 1980s. In this review, Areala takes a walk down memory lane to review the first book in her favorite fantasy gamebook series.

The Realm of Avalon prospers due to the vigilant protection of King Arthur and his valiant Knights of the Table Round (or Round Table as people insist on calling it...wrongly). When these extraordinary men face something they cannot handle, they call in the Wizard Merlin. But when the job is too tough for Merlin to handle, who is there to call upon?

In J.H. "Herbie" Brennan's version of Avalon, the answer is quite simple: you. Or rather your alter-ego, a young, good-looking, strong, intelligent person by the name of Pip. It should be noted that Brennan takes special care in writing not to give Pip any notable traits: Pip's hair length, eye colour, and even gender are kept carefully unremarked upon, making it possible for adventurers both male and female to truly feel "in-character" as the hero (or heroine) he or she is personating. This stands in stark contrast to many other gamebooks, where the protagonist is given a very specific look and gender. Pip though could be anybody, and that's very refreshing.

Pip's body, as it turns out, is perfectly capable of taking care of itself in normal day-to-day tasks on the farm where Pip lives with adoptive parents Freeman John and Goodwife Miriam. Pip's mind, on the other hand, comes from the future, ensnared by a bit of magic known as a Net Spell which is crafted by Merlin in the form of a spellbook. Readers of this spellbook have their minds snagged up by the Net Spell and are transported to Avalon to engage in all sorts of wild adventures, ferocious combat, cunning trickery, puzzle solving, and other sorts of mischief generally frowned upon in this day and age. Fortunately for those who get killed whilst tempting fate, Merlin is around to handily resurrect you and set you back on the path again in the hopes that you'll do better the next time around.

The Castle of Darkness first introduces Brennan's vision of the Arthurian legend, and thus it has some fairly large boots to fill as both a set of rules for play as well as a clever back-story detailing a problem that King Arthur is not equipped to deal with that necessitates Merlin's Net Spell to summon help from the future. The problem, in this case, is a nasty piece of work named Ansalom.

Ansalom is cruel and rotten through and through. And while such persons are dealt with swiftly under normal circumstances, Ansalom himself is of sufficient power and stature as a Wizard to thwart any action directed against him by the Table Round. Normally, Ansalom reserves his power for annoyances like magically drying out moats, blighting crops, and stealing pigs. This time, however, Ansalom has decided to foray into the realm of kidnapping and uses his magic to abduct Queen Guinevere from right under everyone's nose. Arthur is no fool: he knows something must be done, and quickly, but a direct assault on Ansalom's castle by even his bravest knights would be a futile gesture on his part. Thus it is decided that rather than brute force, a more commando-style approach is needed. Arthur dumps the problem in Merlin's lap, and Merlin responds by pulling you into the past and dumping it in yours.

Welcome to Avalon.

The Grailquest series uses many of the same conventions as other gamebooks: you have a character sheet where you record your stats, equipment, treasure and experience points; most actions in the game involving luck or skill are resolved through the use of two six-sided dice and rather than reading the sections in order, you bounce around through the book just like a Choose Your Own Adventure. Weapons give you a boost on damage, armour makes it harder for your enemy to hurt you, and magic can make the difference between life and death if used correctly. The rules are simple enough to be spelled out completely on a double-sided page at the back of the book and even cover such aspects as attempting to get a Friendly Reaction from a monster when you run across it, Sleeping to regain lost Life Points, and attempting to bribe an opponent to let you pass unmolested where that is possible.

The main strength of The Castle of Darkness is its writing style. Many other gamebooks published around the same time were very serious affairs, with the grim hero advancing through the plotline and tackling problem after problem until it came time to waste the main baddie and complete his quest. The Grailquest series, on the other hand, is more tongue-in-cheek. Brennan's whimsy and delight at the chance to play around in King Arthur's sandbox are most evident with the dialogue he gives to his characters as well as the multitude of strange, bizarre, weird and sometimes outright illogical creatures and events that flow through the books. Fans of T.H. White's Arthurian stories will be right at home with the slightly daft Merlin, the noble and sensible Arthur, the oft-confused King Pellinore and the all-too-eager-to-please Lancelot. But Brennan more than makes this version of Avalon his own through the introduction of such strange creatures as the Poetic Fiend (whose rhymes, it has been noted, are so attrocious as to have made cockroaches barf on occasion), a sawn-off version of Excalibur known as "Excalibur Junior" (or just E.J.) who isn't afraid to speak his mind to Pip but who is deathly afraid of spiders, and a Merlin who is forever changing his primary abode for any reason under the sun. So while your quest to save the Queen is both noble and serious, it is clear in the author's mind that adventure games should be fun first and foremost, and the writing style reflects this even in the areas where Pip isn't having the greatest of times. The book also has no problem breaking the third wall to get a chuckle from the reader from time to time: "Isn't this exciting?" asks Brennan when Pip is confronted by a spider the size of a Great Dane while holding sword that suffers from arachnophobia and a sputtering torch that is about to go out.

Brennan also clearly understands how gamers play these books, as he gives advice to the reader to draw a map and pop back to previously-explored sections to make different choices if it seems like advancing is impossible and allows the player to make three separate rolls for Life Points and choose the best of them to keep. Death is not a terribly big deal on the adventure, for while it does mean that you lose any treasure you've collected on the way and that you have to start over from the beginning (or from Ansalom's castle if you've managed to get inside), any enemies you killed on previous attempts remain dead and can do you no further harm. Likewise, traps you encounter can often be avoided if you were caught by them before. More than likely, new adventurers will find themselves visiting the dreaded Section 14 several times before they finally manage to find Ansalom, much less rescue the Queen.

One shouldn't say that it is difficult to die in Castle of Darkness, because it is not, but at the same time Pip begins the quest with an awful lot of firepower. While this is a nice change from books where you start with nothing but a normal sword and a few gold coins, you almost get a sense of overkill from Pip's starting equipment which includes the afore-mentioned E.J. which is a very powerful magic sword that makes it easier to hit your opponent and adds 5 to any damage scored with it, a dragonskin jacket which subtracts 4 from all damage dealt to you in combat, and a whole plethora of tools, equipment and medical supplies. In addition to this, Pip begins the adventure with 10 lightning bolts (called Firefingers) which never miss and score a straight 10 damage on anything they hit and a pair of magical fireballs which require a six or better on two dice to hit but incinerate whatever they touch to the tune of 75 damage apiece. While this may seem like quite the arsenal to bring to the table, especially during the early parts of the adventure, it will not seem so by the end. There are some nasty traps and even nastier creatures to be found, and you will need all of your offensive might and a fair dose of common sense to overcome them.

For all it gets right, Castle of Darkness is not without some problems. A few sections omit the numbers needed to advance further (though it is fairly obvious where the subsequent sections should lead, so this is not a large problem). There are also instances of the book assuming you have certain stats when this may not be the case (your Life Points will vary between 8 and 48, being reduced to 5 Life Points renders you unconscious and being reduced to 0 kills you, yet an early fight claims it will not end with a death but only after one of you loses 10 Life Points, despite the fact that it is possible to lose only 8 and die). There is also the Experience Point system which is described in the book's rules (you gain 1 Experience Point for every fight you win or puzzle you solve), but the text never indicates exactly what puzzles that are solved give you an Experience Point (for instance, decoding a message found on a piece of paper that may be essentially that something worthy of Experience or is it just a red herring). The rules also indicate that particularly heroic deeds can earn more than one EP, but the book never tells you what these are (how many EPs do you get for rescuing a Queen, for example?) This wouldn't be such a big deal, except that you can cash in EP for Permanent Life Points at the rate of 1 PLP for every 20 EP earned, and you can take up to 10 PLPs with you into subsequent adventures to add to your total Life Points.

All told, though, pointing out these few "flaws" are much like claiming that one can see the brush strokes in a couple places on a Monet: they don't truly detract from anything and are easily overlooked.

Brush strokes, on the other hand, are something you will not see in the artwork that graces the book's interior. What you get instead is some of the finest ink-work to be seen in a gamebook. John Higgins, who became famous for his work in the 2000 AD comic and later for runs on Hellblazer, Judge Dredd and even Batman, contributes fantastic illustrations for various scenes in the book as well as stylistic pieces that aren't related to the story but still add a wonderful sense of ambience to the book (see his illustration for the ruined building in the middle of the woods in Section 20 as a fine example of this talent). While I have played many other gamebooks, none of them have been illustrated to this quality. Whoever had the idea of hiring Higgins to provide visual references for the game was brilliant, and the Grailquest series would not have been the same without him.

What a player comes away from after a trip to the Castle of Darkness is a sense that J.H. Brennan really knows what he is doing and is quite capable of making you feel like a part of his Avalon, even if only for a few hours at a time. The book ends with Merlin telling Pip about the possibility of more adventures in the future. "And you will come back," the Wizard asks, "won't you?"

Yes, Mr. Brennan, we will. And very enthusiastically. Yes. Yes, indeed.

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