Sunday, 23 July 2017

Broken Gamebooks #5: Steve Jackson's Sorcery!

Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! is probably the greatest single achievement of the Fighting Fantasy range, if not the choose-your-own-adventure genre as a whole. Aimed at an older audience than the main FF range, the four books add up to one massive story with over 2,000 references all told, and are best remembered for some horribly gruesome death scenes, Goya-inspired illustrations and (as befitted the target audience) being really very difficult indeed. But what we’re here for is to discuss the logistical errors in them.

The second book, Khare Cityport of Traps, has no major errors that I can see – certainly nothing that would render the game (unintentionally) unwinnable. The other three, however...

Book 1: The Shamutanti Hills
Section 170: This is a section where you Test Your Luck, are lucky… and then die. You need to be Unlucky to survive the encounter. This isn’t totally unprecedented (there is a similar situation in the FF gamebook Black Vein Prophecy where you need to fail a stat check to get an item required to win the game), but it is a bit odd. (There’s a similar case in section 49 of the next book, where you have to be Unlucky to achieve what you’re trying to do, but that at least doesn’t result in your death.)

Section 248: In this section, you are given a Vial of Glue. At section 123, later in the book, you are told you can’t use the GUM spell as you don’t have a Vial of Glue.

(A word about the spellcasting system: certain spells required certain items, and those items were hidden throughout the game; some spells were totally off-limits in books 1 and 2 as the items in question couldn’t be found. Perhaps Jackson found keeping track of which items he had and hadn’t yet introduced too hard, as in book 3 there’s a character who owns all the spellcasting items. In fact, that's a fairly inelegant solution as the only list of spell items is in the Spell Book, which you're expressly forbidden from referring to once you've started the adventure, which further suggests that this was a last-minute fudge. But I digress.)

Book 3: The Seven Serpents
Section 103: Here's a bit of an oddity. In Khare, one of the items you can pick up is the Serpent Ring, which comes into play in this book. At certain sections where you meet one of the Serpents, then if you have the Ring you deduct 14 from the reference number and turn to the new section to use the Ring's powers to force the Serpent to give you a piece of foreknowledge for The Crown of Kings. The odd thing is that you can use it against the Time Serpent in two different sections (all the other Serpents have just the one), and one of those is a section where it kills you. (NB: There are also two different sections for the Air Serpent, but there are two slightly different and mutually exclusive ways to encounter that Serpent; it's only possible to find both such sections with the Time Serpent.)

This may just have been Jackson's creative way of making sure you worked hard to find the hidden information. (For what it's worth, the Time Serpent can only be killed by taking a nonstandard action not given in the text, and this is similar to a trick used in Jackson's later FF book Creature of Havoc, where the only successful path includes a section that ends in your death and then requires an unprompted action.)

This isn't actually something that breaks the game, of course. However, it does hint at some kind of rewrite or revision of the text at some point, and that'll get more interesting later on...

Section 260: This section informs you that you need to find poison antidote before sundown or else you’ll die. The problem is that it’s not possible to do so after this section. (There is a poison antidote in this game, but it can’t be found on this path, suggesting that there should have been an option to reach the place where the antidote can be found but it was accidentally left out. Alternatively, a prayer to Libra might logically be able to cure you, but this isn’t mentioned as an option in the text.)

Section 290: In this section, the Sham gives you a small glass vial filled with gas. Remember this, as it’ll be on the test for the next book.

Section 393: This section asks you how many of the titular Serpents you’ve managed to kill. It has options for killing no Serpents or one Serpent, but there are two Serpents (Air and Time) it is impossible to miss, irrespective of which choices you make. As the Time Serpent is directly before this section, and the Air Serpent is part of getting across Lake Ilklala, it seems impossible Jackson didn’t know of this. (It is also very difficult to go through the book without learning that the Sun Serpent has already been defeated by someone else, but not impossible.) I have two theories about this:
  1. Jackson originally intended the book to be significantly bigger and more complex, and it would have been possible to avoid all seven Serpents; the superfluous references are a remnant of this earlier version. (Note that Khare had a similar ‘gotta catch ‘em all’ quest, where you had to find four spell lines, and it was possible to go through the whole book and find none of them.)
  2. Jackson wanted to avoid making it clear that you’d always encounter at least two Serpents, upping the book’s potential replay value. (Jackson has form with this sort of thing – a similar thing happens in his FF gamebook Appointment with F.E.A.R., and it's obviously intentional there – so I tend towards this being the more likely, assuming it wasn't a genuine oversight.)
Although option 2 seems more likely on the face of it, there is some circumstantial evidence I can see that the version of The Seven Serpents that made it to print is a revised, simplified version.
Going back to The Shamutanti Hills for a moment, there's a problem with section 319. Brace yourself for a dramatic revelation: This section is completely unreachable, as none of the other sections direct you to it. That definitely seems to be the result of a rewrite: the superfluous section covers what happens if you attempt to cast a spell but don't have the required item as you can't have it yet, even though it is possible to have the item by this point in the game. (See the word about the spellcasting system above.)

This is comparable to the note I made about section 103 of this book above, with the Time Serpent's hidden information being accessible from two different sections – should it only have been available from one of them, then Jackson changed his mind and added the second reference, but the first one was left in?
So it seems possible that The Seven Serpents was also rewritten... but just how extensive was the rewrite, assuming it happened at all? Could it have been major enough that there was originally a version where all of the Serpents could be missed? Read on for more...

(Incidentally, there's one thing about the book that I don't think is an error, but is worth noting for completion. If you reach Lake Ilklala without having found the secret of how to summon the ferryman – and, as noted above, all paths through the book include having to cross the Ilklala then you can go no further. It seems a couple of players believe you should have the option to pray to Libra here... but I think whether or not you can call on her to get out of something is up to Jackson, there's no evidence it was an oversight here, and it makes perfect sense to have a few problems that not even she can help you with. Besides, the book explicitly says you can call on Libra when you're in danger, which isn't the case here.)

Book 4: The Crown of Kings
Section 152 (A): This section, when you’re up against the (genuinely terrifying) Sleepless Ram, gives you the option to use a Yellowfruit Skin. Except there’s no Yellowfruit Skin to be found in any of the books of this series. However, trying to use the non-existent Skin shortly results in your death, so this is possibly (or even probably) a clever trap designed to catch out cheaters.

Section 152 (B): Remember that vial of gas from the last book? It’s suddenly turned into a vial of liquid when you’re given the opportunity to use it. (The book includes a quick test as to how you got it to deter cheaters, so it’s definitely meant to be the same one.) Is this more evidence of the books being revised at some point, or just forgetfulness on Jackson’s part?

Section 251: If you managed to kill all seven Serpents in the previous book, then there is a special bonus in this book: if you ever meet someone who recognises you as ‘the Analander’, deduct 40 from the number of the reference you are on at the time and turn to that number for a new reference where you are not recognised. This is one such encounter, with the torture-master. The problem is that the torturer carries a vital piece of information that you need to progress in the game, and if you’re recognised because you didn't kill all the Serpents, then getting that information is a bit contrived as it requires the torturer to forget that you’re the most wanted person in the entire fortress. It reads a bit like Jackson wrote the version of the encounter where you're not recognised first, then had to bolt this one on later.

Section 438: This is the one and only opportunity the game gives you to cast the ZED spell, which nobody in the game’s universe knows the effect of. It turns out (spoiler alert!) to be a spell for time travel… and if you cast it without knowing what it does, then it will randomly transport you to somewhere else in time and space. Jackson has a bit of fun here – several of the places it can take you are references in previous books, including all the way back to the first section of The Shamutanti Hills! However, the game doesn’t make any provision for what to do with your inventory, which means you end up with several spellcasting items you shouldn’t be able to acquire for several books, but you still can’t cast the spells because the other books aren’t aware that you’ve travelled back from the last one. (I understand that the Wizard reprint and the iOS adaptation may have fixed these, but I haven’t seen either of those and can’t comment.) Update! I've tracked down a copy of Wizard Books' 2003 reissue to my local Oxfam, and can confirm this problem is fixed there: all of the sections which send you back to earlier books in the series have been modified to include references to all your possessions disappearing when you travel back. (See also Broken Gamebooks #7 and #10 for other examples of the Wizard reprints having minor tweaks and corrections.) The iOS adaptation has an entirely different climax, with the ZED spell having a totally different use and effect, but that's another article, for another day... 

(It’s worth noting that it’s very unlikely you’d actually end up travelling back in time to a previous book, as the game gives you an opportunity to find out what the ZED spell does and how to control it before you actually cast it which is difficult to miss. This was just Jackson having a bit of fun more than anything, but it’s still possible to entirely break the whole game.)

Section 503: This problem concerns the Simple/Warrior version of the game. The difference between this version of the game and the Advanced/Wizard version is that you just ignore the whole spellcasting system (and have a slightly higher Skill score). However, if you’re playing as a Warrior, then you need to find this section, which is very early on in the game and part of a branch that it’s easy to miss entirely, to find an item which will substitute for the ZED spell right at the end of the game. If you miss it, then you’ve already lost the game right at the start. Although Sorcery! is a difficult series, this seems a bit harsh. (It’s possible to do something in The Seven Serpents that renders the game unwinnable in The Crown of Kings, which is even harsher, but you need to renounce your goddess to do so, which the book specifically warns you is a very bad thing.) And at section 537, the book also needs to struggle a bit to make the game winnable for Warriors by providing a rather contrived substitute for a spell. It’s almost as if Jackson didn’t expect anyone to be playing as a Warrior anyway (the title of the series is a bit of a clue, and there's at least one character in Khare who automatically presumes you're a sorcerer), but then why provide that option at all?

This picture nicked from an Amazon listing
(A note about The Sorcery! Spell Book would not go amiss here, as it provides a possible answer to that question. At first the Spell Book was published separately from the gamebooks themselves – The Shamutanti Hills was part of a boxset with the Spell Book included as a separate volume. However, Khare was the only book to be originally published standalone without the Spell Book: by the time The Seven Serpents came out, there had been a rethink and the Spell Book was included in the back of the main gamebook as an appendix. The Warrior version of the game may only have been included as part of the original plan that you'd need to buy the Spell Book separately for the spellcasting system to work.)

Section 545: The encounter with the clan of She-Satyrs is problematic. If you earlier found the dead She-Satyr in the cave, then you have the option of telling them about this, but even though this seems like the wiser option, if you do then you miss out on getting an important item and finding out about how to meet an even more important character (by means of another of Jackson's patented reference modifiers to take a nonstandard option later on). I can't definitively say if this is an error or Jackson's actual intention; I suspect the former, but readers may wish to draw their own conclusions.

This is undoubtedly the most fascinating Broken Gamebooks article to date, because it seems pretty likely that the Sorcery! books underwent some kind of revision and/or restructuring during the writing process. But just how different were the versions that didn't make it to print? Most of the oddities, like the vial of gas changing into a vial of liquid between books, seem pretty nip-and-tuck stuff... but The Seven Serpents in particular seems to hint at something more major.

It's always possible I'm reading too much into circumstantial evidence, of course – apart from the things I've noted here, the books work terrifically well when taken as a complete epic, and Jackson obviously took a long time to plot them out (there's an incredibly minor plot detail in The Shamutanti Hills that doesn't become relevant until one of the very last encounters of The Crown of Kings). Even so, I'd love to hear anything from him about how he wrote this series...


  1. If Steve Jackson had accounted for coming back in time and made every spell with a component have an effect it would have been legendary. I probably would have spend hours flicking through the books trying to find where I could actually get a ring of green metal etc. and never finding it and it would have demonstrated a level of prepartion only to be aimed for.

    1. A couple of these errors obviously arise from the fact that the series was written one book at a time. I wonder if Jackson ever considered going back and doing a 'director's cut' after the last book had been released...