Thursday, February 8, 2024

Let's Dig Into: A Semi-Random Assortment of Issues of The Warlock Returns (Advanced Fighting Fantasy 2E)

 I've gone on record as saying I like Fighting Fantasy, and I do. Its world is goofy in ways I wish Warhammer still was, and the system itself is pretty simple to get with. It kept me company as an anxious child, while its descendent helps make me money as an anxious adult. But I haven't really engaged with the 2nd edition of the game much since its release back in 2011. Sure, I fiddled with the character creation rules here once, but that just doesn't feel like enough.

So, I've resolved to satisfy that empty space with a semi-random and out-of-order assortment of magazine issues!

The Warlock Returns is the official zine for AFF2E, first published by Arion Games in 2020. It's a throwback to the tabletop gaming publications of old that combines fan content creations with letters and updates from the publisher, plus regular installments in a slightly cringe-worthy comic serial and the occasional charity drive. At the time of writing there are 11 issues, with the latest released this January.

I only know the zine exists because I was trawling the Fighting Fantasy wiki a few weeks ago. Naturally I was looking to see if shamans exist anywhere in any of the gamebooks' mechanics, and to my surprise I learned that there is a dedicated school of shamanist magic in issue #4. So I whinged and wibbled with myself for a bit before grabbing the PDF on sale.

#4 begins like most TWR issues with a "Denizens of the Pit" segment detailing some new monsters to throw at your players. Unlike others however, this one provides a whole generator for creating bizarre animals that have adapted and mutated in isolated island environments. We're talking stuff like psychic terror flamingos here.

TWR seems to have a slight predisposition toward tropical island exploration; nearly every issue has a rather on-the-nose "JUNGLE MANIA" section towards the front. It serves to flesh out a biome of the Fighting Fantasy world of Titan that is mostly neglected elsewhere. And although the name sounds a lot worse than it is, it is still a very pulpy collection of savage jungle tropes at heart, with all the societal baggage that carries.

Also one of the diseases you can contract is literally named Jungle Fever. I feel like the editors had to have noticed that during their pass, yeah?

Regardless, herein lies the shaman, so I made a beeline for it.

The first thing I feel I should say is that "shaman" doesn't feel like the right name for this option. This is not only because of the sometimes problematic practice of ascribing the label of shaman to widely disparate practices in real life (which I am crazy guilty of and currently trying to get better about); it's also because from the spell list to the ritual items to the artwork, this shaman is clearly modeled on practitioners of Hollywood Voodoo, and to a lesser extent other pastiches of Sub-Saharan African religions.

... Then again, including a literal witch doctor class in a segment titled JUNGLE MANIA would've been even worse, so maybe forget that whole quibble.

Shamanism is a school of spellcasting similar to minor magic, wizardry, or sorcery from the core book- it's very similar to sorcery in fact, because they both rely on casting from Stamina like in Troika! and because of their not-insignificant amount of spell list overlap. The shaman has automatic access to 24 spells, 7 of which are reprints of sorcerer spells from the core book. The remaining 17 spells include such classics as curing diseases or curses, stabbing dolls with needles to damage or debuff targets, raising zombies, and scaring away demons and spirits with a terrifying mask. There are also a few unexpected utility spells like improving the crop yield of a plot of farmland, or preventing forest fires.

It's a decent mix of effects, but 1/4th of the list being reprints feels underwhelming- especially since the spread of sorcery reference cards that comes with this issue doesn't include the new shaman spells.

Did I mention the reference cards? They remind me a lot of the little power cards they made to keep track of all our stuff in D&D 4E.

Perfect for helping Salticid become one with the earth

I wasn't keen on checking out the rest of the zine after satisfying my curiosity for the shaman, but I scrolled through anyway. There was a gnome inventor's shop which can also function as a dungeon if your party is full of jerks, a review of Troika! by somebody other than the AFF2E creator who's not all that interested in it (which I find kinda funny), some material for the sci-fi counterpart to AFF called Stellar Adventures, and of course the aforementioned cringey comic strip about the adventures of the goofy narcissist Gareus, who also writes the zine's Dear Abby-esque column, "Agony Aunt".

It has more eels and bare, hairy butt than you might expect.

Eventually I perused my way down to the section on new player races. I was curious because one of the new options offered isn't actually that new. Rhino-people have existed in Fighting Fantasy for a while, to the point that they were one of the two examples shown in the "how to build a new race" section of the AFF2E rules, right next to goblins. So I pulled the book out for comparison, and found that TWR rhinos are weaker than those in the core rules, perhaps because the balancing was a little screwy the first time around. They keep their natural armor and horn weapon, but get lower luck and a slew of restrictions like needing to eat twice as much food every day or being clumsy.

There's a species of amphibious frog people called the Slykk too and they're cool and all, but I hardly gave them a second glance before my eyes drifted up to the banner at the top of the page displaying the other species appearing in the zine's other issues.

Well shoot. I gotta check out the half-orcs, right?

Of course I do. So I scoured the issue list until I found that half-orcs appeared in #3, which I quickly backtracked to nab because it was still on sale.

Orcs in the Fighting Fantasy world of Titan are an odd mix. Sometimes they're the cartoonishly-proportioned football hooligans of Warhammer, but other times they're gangling and more humanly nasty thugs like your classic Shagrats and Gorbags. They've also taken the hat normally reserved for humans in fantasy and become the species that seems genetically compatible with just about everything else on the planet. Sometimes these half-orcs are relatively well-adjusted individuals who find friendship and community, such as the Svinn tribe from the Shamutanti Hills. Other times they're the patricidal children of sexual violence like the TWR half-orc.

Here, half-orcs have it rough. They're unwanted, both cultures despise and mock them, they're prone to being attacked or even enslaved, and the best work they can find for themselves tends to be violent. Some despise their own existence so much that they make it their life's mission to kill all orcs, starting with their orcish parent (who is invariably typed as the father). To account for this miserable societal condition, half-orcs suffer a whopping -3 to any Etiquette test, kneecapping their ability to be social and diplomatic.

A face that, canonically, not even a mother could love. Rough.

They aren't completely forsaken, though. Half-orcs get some of the versatility of humans in the form of several Advanced Skills and a free Talent choice. They get a few positives from their orcish side as well, like dark seeing and 1 higher starting Skill compared to humans, plus free ranks in Brawling and Strength. They also get a second stomach.

Oh, right. That probably bears explaining.

In this world, orcs have multiple stomachs. They rely on these to digest virtually anything that they can find in their nutrient-deficient caves and wastelands. Wood, dirt, bone, even some metals; it's all orc food if they're hungry enough. Half-orcs inherit this "orc tripe", allowing them to eat almost anything without getting sick as well as the option to eat 1 more health-recovering meal per day than normal, but without the requirement that rhino-people suffer.

To me the TWR half-orc is an interesting and fun option despite its emphasis on a horrid conception and childhood that many other properties (even AD&D back in the day) either keep vague or leave out entirely.

This is in contrast to another option that I like because of its grimdark background. That is the Black Elves visible in the out-of-order banner above, which are found in TWR issue #6. An issue which I didn't pick up while the sale was on late last year, so I sat on this post idea for a couple of months until I decided to start writing it so that I'd have a justifiable reason to buy the PDF for myself.

Thank you for enabling me, dear Burrowers!

Jokes aside, I was meaning to get #6. And I did! So let's get into it.

Fast forward to #6 and TWR is much the same as it's always been. Jungle Mania is still plugging away, new dungeons, rumors, and story beats for AFF and SA are at a steady flow, Gareus continues to be a hairy schmuck, etc. There's also been a drip feed of updates for project AFF Online, a proprietary website for playing AFF over the internet. It's still dragging its feet through the testing phase, but the team and community seem committed to providing a platform that's more integrated with their game than one of the larger and more general apps like Roll20.

And then there are the black elves. To really understand them, we have to have an elvish history lesson. Forgive me for what I'm about to put you through.

Way back in the history of Titan, there was a great battle between Good and Evil that ended with a status quo stalemate and the gods packing up and moving back into the heavens, leaving mortals to their own devices. Elves took the Third Age Elrondy kind of approach and took a backseat to the events of the world, cultivating knowledge and wisdom and advising the forces of Good without doing a whole lot themselves. Over time some elves took serious issue with this, because they believed their people could and should lead the forces of Good to a final triumph over Evil instead of just standing by while bad things happened in the world. But the elven council, a kind of federal monarchy in charge, said no to that; it was a real U.N. Moment in the eyes of the agitators.

But an energetic young elf-prince with a keen interest in humans named Viridel Kerithrion decided nuts to that, and gathered a large faction of elvish dissenters to lead a coup with. They would wrest power from the complacent and lead the world into a new golden age of goodness and freedom; with the elves and their interests conveniently located at the very top of this new world order, of course. Unfortunately for wannabe elf NATO, the wife of the high king happened to have the gift of foresight and realized something was up, so the most prominent royals of the council didn't even show up on the day of the coup, and Viridel and his coconspirators just killed a bunch of middling nobles before holing up in the council palace in a vain attempt to weather the severe counterattack that came.

Eventually the siege drove the rebels into underground escape tunnels, which they followed back to Viridel's homeland, where he tried to declare an independent state, only for them to get crushed a second time by the united elf army that they'd just finished evading. They retreated a second time into an ancient abandoned underground dwarf city and locked the door behind them, intending to make their final stand now that they'd pointlessly cornered themselves.

But instead of mopping up, the other elves decided to give up and went back home. From here, Viridel lead an exodus deep into the bowels of the earth in search of a new home and purpose. Why this supposedly great warrior made so many tactical blunders in a row is not known, and why his people continued to follow him after this point is a mystery to me. But it probably has something to do with this next part.

See, Viridel's interest in humans led to him becoming an acolyte of a human god in order to fully understand the mindset of those brash, short-lived youngsters. Unfortunately the god he picked was Slangg, god of malice, whom Viridel saw as the embodiment of the human spirit; malicious, petty, vengeful, and violent.

He's, uh... not completely wrong.

Slangg corrupted him into a sorcerous, Evil-aligned tyrant a la Malekith from Warhammer, and his followers soon after. They became the very Lolthite variety of subterranean dark elves, black-skinned as an old-timey and yikes shorthand for their inner evil, dabbling in demon worship, slavery, living sacrifice, and all manner of aristocratic decadence in their underground cities as they spread their influence from the shadows.

But those are the dark elves. The black elves were on board with Viridel's plan for direct action right up until they got their asses handed to them twice in a row and folks started getting sacrificed to names like Demon Prince Myurr. At that point, a handful of elf clans had an 'are we the baddies?' moment and realized that maybe they were getting a raw deal here. So they disavowed their brethren and booked it back up to the surface world. From there, they separated into wandering merchant caravans that now brave the desolate places of Titan, living a nomadic existence supplemented by trade between far-flung cities and protected by mounted archers.

Despite the name 'black', black elves are actually the most visually diverse elves on Titan. They range from grey to black in pigmentation, and they often decorate their bodies in elaborate programs of magical tattoos and "exotic" clothing and hairstyles. My guess as to why they got saddled with the name 'black' elves is because 'dark elves' was already claimed by a more popular and well-known fantasy archetype, meanwhile the near-synonymous Old Norse term Svart√°lfar was just kind of sitting right there collecting dust.

The black elves are hated by their dark elf former kin, and their relationship to surface elves and other species isn't much better. They are perpetual exiles who sometimes dip into tropes ascribed to the Romani people and other itinerants, but not too overtly? They actually remind me a bit of the dunmer Ashlanders from The Elder Scrolls, without the Mahdist prophesy. They are complex, downcast but resilient people who are oftentimes the mysterious Other. But as this player option attests, sometimes they're at the center of things.

As for the actual options, I suppose I've put those off too long. Black elves are mechanically almost identical to system standard wood elves, -2 Stamina. They replace forest lore with underground lore, plus one other environmental lore to reflect their ethnogenesis and more recent history. They get some of their 1 rank Advanced Skills decided for them by automatically gaining con, evaluation, and secret signs: tattoos to play up their sometimes roguish caravaneering. They also get the Survivor talent to represent their living off the land in between cities.

They also get immunity to the "all elves are conventionally beautiful" stereotype.

Way more mechanically interesting are the bird people who immediately follow the black elves in this issue. They possess a natural attack, rules for flight and having a cumbersome wingspan, and even a reverse vertigo effect that they suffer from. But I should leave something for you to check out on your own, if this overlong post has piqued your interest in The Warlock Returns. It's got a smattering of good bits.

Tangentially related, did you know Elden Ring was partly inspired by Fighting Fantasy creatures like Red Eyes and those crystal people with the goofy haircuts? I did not.