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Book 03: The Caverns of Kalte» Forums » Reviews

Subject: Under the Mountains of Madness rss

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Eric Dodd
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Hey! Let’s go all the way back to the start of my series, as if nothing much has happened in the last 9 and a bit years, and carry on the Lone Wolf series. I’d previously tackled Book 02: Fire on the Water , so let’s move on to Book 03: The Caverns of Kalte. Can Lone Wolf keep my attention at least through the first series of 5 books?

SYSTEM: Lone Wolf is a d10 based system. Your new character is rolled up with Combat Skill of 10+1d10 and Endurance Points of 20+1d10. A die is not needed, as there is a page of random numbers from 0 - 9 that you can poke at blindfolded. A new feature in character generation is the selection of "Kai Disciplines". There are a choice of ten, from which five are picked for a starting character. Surviving each adventure allows a character an extra Discipline, like a simple experience system. You also get additional gold for each adventure, which may eventually be useful.

There is a complicated equipment system - you can carry 2 weapons, up to 50 gold crowns, eight standard items in your backpack (including meals), and any number of Special items (usually items vital to completing the adventure). Shields add to your Combat skill, but Armour adds to your Endurance ... interesting.

Combat involves comparing your Combat Skill with that of your opponent or opponents. This gives a "Combat Ratio" (actually a straight Combat skill difference, not a ratio) which is checked against a d10 roll (or random number pick) to give damage to Endurance to Lone Wolf and his opponent. For example, if Lone Wolf has Combat skill 15, and he is fighting a pirate with Combat skill 13 then the column to be checked is "+2". Results vary from 4 damage to enemy / 5 damage to Lone Wolf if a 1 is rolled, up to 14 damage to enemy / 0 damage to Lone Wolf if a 10 is rolled. If either party is much stronger than the other then an instant kill is possible. So be careful who you pick on. You can sometimes evade combat, which gives you a chance of taking an unprotected blow as you flee the scene.

Unlike Fighting Fantasy / Sorcery there are no Skill or Luck checks. You either have a skill or don't have it. Just because you do have a skill doesn't mean you will automatically get the best result - often you are just given some extra information and still get to make a choice. In this book, you usually only have one skill that is applicable in any circumstance, Skills are not equal in value, and picking one or two here will make your success much easier. There are random rolls, sometimes to pick an encounter, and sometimes to determine an outcome. Having a Skill or having reached a level of Kai ability may give you a bonus on some of these rolls.

The system works well, though the straight d10 distribution (11-20 for skill, 21-30 for endurance) means that the odds are just as likely you will have a below average character as an average or above average one. A poor character will find it very hard in combat, even with the table weighted in your favour. The big modifier here is the Sommerswerd - if you picked it up in Book 2 you get a constant +8 to your Combat Skill, and do double damage to any undead foes.

SETTING: In a similar way to Sorcery, the Lone Wolf books are all set in the same world and tell a continuing story. You are the last of a vaguely mystical monk-like warrior caste, the Kai Lords. You get to choose your individual skills, but your missions are strictly defined by each book. In Caverns of Kalte you are called back from the monastery you are rebuilding in your granted lands of Fryelund by news concerning the traitor sorcerer Vonotar. You defeated his undead warfleet in Book 2, but he escaped to the northern lands of Kalte and is now building a barbarian army to take his revenge. Your mission is to travel to the fortress of Ikava in Kalte, capture Vonotar and bring him back for judgement. The world is known as Magnamund, the action here taking place in The Lastlands, the free kingdoms of the North.

This time you are adventuring in the frozen wastes, so your social skills will be less important than combat and survival skills. Lone Wolf will still need to make some important decisions about who to trust, what items to take and what paths to tread in order to reach your goal. Dog sleds, guides and furs are all you have to help you through to your goal, though the final decisions will be yours.

SPOILERS FROM HERE ON

FREEDOM OF CHOICE: As usual there’s just one successful paragraph, where you capture Vonotar and make a clean escape from Ikava. Unusually there is a paragraph where you can escape alive with your mission uncompleted. It would have been nice if later books referred to this dichotomy, but there are references you’ll carry on from this book to others. You do get quite a lot of freedom to choose different routes across the ice, to decide how to deal with wild animals and ice barbarians and then the routes within the fortress. There are a number of choices where your skills may give you clues as to the best option, but at other times you just have to make a guess and hope for the best. There are a number of sudden deaths, especially as you get closer to the end.

DESIGN: You have two routes from your starting point, split further by random roll and your choices. These routes lead you into the ancient ruins of the fortress, then through further choke points before you reach the final confrontation. There is a fair variety in the routes you can take, but there are compulsory items and locations you have to get to. There are 350 paragraphs, though many are quite long. The bonus of Gary Chalk’s rounded pre-Raphaelite illustrations really help with the atmosphere of the book. There are 20 full page illustrations, plus numerous unique drawings that all refer to the nearby text. This is much better than the Fighting Fantasy filler illustrations which are generally irrelevant. There are no clues or puzzles in the pictures in this book.

Once again the moral consequence for attacking people are not really present. In 2019 you might feel uneasy about attacking people with no provocation, especially as the northern peoples you meet are described as ‘barbarians’ and ‘evil’. Not only does the book not punish you for such an ambush, it’s actually the safest way into the fortress in giving you a useful key. There are two captives in the fortress you can rescue, only one of who is useful to you. The game gives you three questions you can ask based on information from Book 2. It’s up to you if you want to let yourself look back in that book for the answers to check this, but you might get clues from the way the captive answers. Unusually for Dever, there is a Steve Jackson-like dead end section of the book where you have no good options, despite having found your way to your goal. From the design point of view this feels like a filler section that didn’t require any new puzzles, and didn’t also need alternative winning paragraphs be written.

Compared to the earlier books in the series there are some bad and even cursed items. Two of the items are quite similar and you might get confused as to which one you should keep - perhaps it’s safest to throw both of them away? The environment feels much more deadly than in books 1 and 2 - make the wrong choices in travelling through the snow and ice and you’ll freeze just like any normal human. Combat can often be avoided until you reach the end. Some foes are particularly dangerous, and can kill you with one hit. If you have the Sommerswerd you’ll find the rest of the fights pretty easy - on the worst random roll in the final combat I still did more damage to my unearthly foe than it did to me.

CONCLUSION: In general this is a fairer and better game than Fire on the Water. Caverns of Kalte might not have the depth of world building, or the apocalyptic battles of that book, but makes up for it with a dangerous well-detailed setting and tricky choices. The dilemma of the ‘proper’ Lone Wolf with his magical sword being too powerful for most of his foes at least means you can concentrate on the puzzles and the setting. If you’ve made it to Book 3 you’ll surely want to read on to the end of at least the first Lone Wolf series, with the promise that the puzzles and writing continue to improve over the last two.
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