Legends of the Ancient World: The Island of Lost Spells
Publisher: Dark City Games
Author: George Dew
Page Count: 38
Cost: $12.95 (Saddle-stapled 8.5″ x 5.5″)
Release Date: 2005
Where to get it: Dark City Games
As a huge fan of solo game books I am usually on the lookout for an interesting series that I missed (and I’ve missed most of them), and I am definitely interested in anyone who is currently making them. I was reading a forum thread one day about these books when someone recommended some products by a tiny game company called Dark City Games. I was intrigued, and thought I would contact them to see if they were interested in sending review copies. They were! This is one of the two books they sent me, and this one is from their Legends of the Ancient World series (which has several books in it). This is The Island of Lost Spells.
When I read a game book, I am always comparing them to the Lone Wolf series and Fighting Fantasy. I can’t help it, and I consider those books the pinnacle of solo gaming. This book is definitely not like those, it is much more like an old-school module than the story-driven tomes I just mentioned. Let’s take a look.
Get The Story Straight
First, I was impressed by the sleek quality of the booklet. It is not a professional-caliber paperback, but it is nice to hold and the paper is a brilliant, smooth white. The print is very sharp and easy to read, and the color-coded rules sections are excellent, as I’m very color-oriented. The booklet comes with a fold-out map and a sheet of counters. I was both put-off and sort of intrigued by the map and counters since I did not expect tactical combat elements but, once I saw those I knew they were happening. Still, making combat as fast and interesting as possible is what I would like to see instead of something that is going to take setup and management. Hey, not my cup of tea, but some folks like it.
The rules seemed clear and concise to me right off the bat. Actions were simple, with a few frills thrown in for interest (like takedowns and counterattacks). The only thing I was confused by was how many characters I was supposed to create, how many attribute points they were supposed to have, and how many skills and/or spells they were supposed to have. Starting with skill points, the beginning of character creation stated that each character had four points, but then later before the adventure it said five. Which one is correct? As a solo player, am I making only one character or should I make four? That was unclear. Of course, upon playing the book I realized that one character would have a tremendously difficult time making it through alive. The book states that characters will have a total of 32 attribute points in the character creation section, but the website says 36, and the “Adventure” section says 36, should I give preference to the website since it is more likely to be up-to-date? These are questions I had. Also, the book states that players begin with four characters. What if I’m playing with a group and we’re running it as a module? I just took my best guess.
One cool thing about this adventure that I already hinted at is that you can play this with a group. How cool is that? Very cool. One night recently I ended up short on players and so I pulled out this book, the players whipped up characters and we were off. We didn’t finish it, but they said they had fun playing it, and I did too.
This book says that it is compatible with other systems like GURPS and The Fantasy Trip. The resolution system is much like GURPS in that you roll 3d6 against a stat, trying to roll equal or under it. As for The Fantasy Trip, I have no idea. I’ve never played it, never seen it, and from what I’ve read about it it is hard to get a hold of in the first place. There are also guidelines for converting it to d20 on the website. So, characters have three attributes: Strength, Dexterity, and Intelligence. You have a few extra stat points to add to attributes, and then you have some skill points to buy skills, weapon skills, and/or spells. That’s pretty much all there is to making a character!
The way the book works is that you play through it as you would a normal game book, starting at entry no. 1 and following the book instructions for the choices you make. You’ll probably run into some enemies you will need to fight, and in that case you will use the fold-out hex map and counters (unless you want to sub figurines or something). Combat is simple, just roll 3d6 against Dexterity to hit, and then roll whatever damage the weapon does. Spells are cast by the caster rolling 3d6 against his or her Intelligence, and then subtracting a number of fatigue points from Strength as dictated by the spell. More powerful spells cost more fatigue. There is quite the spell list too, everything from a “Death” spell to a “Summon Dragon” spell to elemental spells and mind control.
Story-wise, the premise of the book is that you travel to a small village in search of a castle rumored to hold vast knowledge of spells and arcane lore. Depending on how you play it, you will probably spend some time dabbling about in town talking to the locals where you’ll hear rumors about some bad things happening and possibly something about a powerful sorcerer. If you visit the local tradesmen you can even work for some extra cash! The pay is downright awful though. Once you do get over to the castle you will explore its halls and see if you can find some treasure and help the locals out of their little predicament. Each room tells you where you are on the hex map and where you can possible go, including marking the exits with an asterisk. Sometimes you go to an entry in a room and it is just a description of the wall you can’t pass through, or the windows or something, which I found odd at times.
There is a definitive end to the adventure, but there doesn’t seem to be anything that really compels you as a player to reach the end. Unlike books in the Fighting Fantasy series where there is a definite story and goal, this was much more sandbox-y and I wasn’t even sure what the goal was most of the time until I discovered it by just reading through the entries in order to try and find the end.
Silver Pennies for Thoughts
I will admit right away that the style of play for this book is not my favorite thing, but I don’t think it’s a bad game book at all. It’s definitely hard, with a few almost unavoidable battles with really tough creatures, and I was never sure if I was allowed to run away or not. The town is just sort of a wafer-thin backdrop for the player to get basic storyline hooks, much like towns you might find in classic RPGs like Final Fantasy, where inhabitants have one line they say when you talk to them. The castle is where the real meat of the adventure is, and a lot of it is just exploring and seeing what you can find. This brings me to my other gripe about the book, that exploring is kind of a pain in the arse. If I didn’t draw a map, I could easily just keep going through the same rooms over and over again, looking for that one exit that will take me to the other room I hadn’t explored yet. When trying to imagine the castle, I felt like it would be easy to know where to go next, but the clumsiness of the entry system left me scratching my head wondering if I had already visited an entry or not. Rooms with encounters (i.e. enemies) in them were even more confusing with the response options on top of the normal room exit and exploration options.
So, all in all I found the book well-written and put together, with interesting exploration options and a sort of cryptic story (which I actually like, I don’t need to see behind the curtain). The combat I didn’t care for, being too hack-and-slash and wargame-y for my tastes. It’s small, well-presented, and packs a surprising amount of adventure time in such a small volume. The open and often confusing entry system left me feeling very unguided, and sometimes unsure of what I could and could not do. Sometimes you were given the option of going a certain direction which just took you to an entry saying that the direction you traveled is just a wall and you can’t go there. Why even have an entry for it then? Also, nearly every room has an option to search by rolling against Intelligence, but if you have one character (probably magic) that has a high Intelligence the chance of failure is so small that it makes the roll mostly just a waste of time. As a solo adventure, I did not like it nearly as much as I did when I played it with a group. As a module I enjoyed it much more, and it allowed me to have something to play on a game night where otherwise I would have been stuck with too few players.
If you like old-school gaming, I think this book would be a great little addition for you to play yourself or with a few friends. It’s simple so young people or the inexperienced could play it no problem. Check out the other books in the Legends of the Ancient World series or their futuristic series.