What better way to pass some time on an overnight ferry crossing then to play a solo gamebook by a dim flickering light in a cramped cabin with the rain lashing down outside and a constant chorus of strange clanking and clanging noises to keep you awake…
Dungeon Saga: Rise of the Shadow King is a paragraph-turning pencil and paper adventure gamebook published by Mantic Games in the finest Fighting Fantasy tradition. The gamebook originally appeared as an add-on for the Dungeon Saga miniaures boardgame Kickstarter and is also now available from Mantic in a print edition for GBP 7.99 and a multi-format digital edition for GBP 6.49 The Kickstarter did also promise a second gamebook, Winter’s Knight, but as far as I’m aware that has never been released in any format.
The book has 400 sections and has atmospheric black & white illustrations throughout, so is certainly using a tried and tested formula. In terms of character creation, the only choice you make is your race – human, dwarf or elf which has some impact on your stats with Elves being fast and handy with a bow (which they start with) but having low health points; Dwarves which are the opposite and humans in the middle. Your stats are Speed, Melee, Ranged and Defence – all expressed as a target number on a six-sided dice (e.g. 3+); Attacks; Health and Fate Points. There are no other skill or equipment choices so you know you’re in for a combat-focused game.
Combat mechanics are pretty straightforward as you score a ‘hit’ by rolling the number of dice equal to your attacks in an attempt to score the target number for your Melee ability and for each success you then roll a further die against the target number of your enemy’s Defence in the hope of inflecting one point of damage. Multiple enemies are most sporting in that they wait patiently and only attack you one at a time. Some enemies have special traits which allow them to modify or re-roll certain dice. Speed is used to avoid traps and other unpleasantness, ranged attacks are only permitted in certain circumstances as precursor to melee and Fate points can be spent to ensure automatic success for some rolls.
The plot is a little sketchy as one minute you’re having a pint at the local inn and next the fate of the kingdom is in your hands, but this is fantasy after all. The setting is the world of Mantica which will familiar to players of Kings or War or Dungeon Saga and all the usual high fantasy tropes are present. The game progresses at a pretty brisk pace and is fairly combat heavy (in my second game I hacked, stabbed and shot my way through about 25 enemies) but there were also a few dilemmas along the way.
In my first game I chose an Elf character who defied the law of averages and managed to miss every single shot he fired with his bow before finally succumbing to his wounds at the hands (claws?) of a werebear after about an hour and a half of playing. Thinking that I couldn’t have such bad luck for a second time, I then played again with another Elf and won the game after about the same amount of time as I was only skimming through some sections I read properly the first time.
In a few spots I felt that I was making choices about which direction to take next without any real context so it felt a bit random, but overall it was a fun experience. If you’re a fan of solo gamebooks or want to get a little more of the flavour of the world of Mantica, I would recommended checking it out.