Monday, September 12, 2011

Endless Quest Flowchart -- Return to Brookmere

For what I expect to be my final analysis/review of TSR's Endless Quest books (see the two priors here and here), today I'll dig into Endless Quest #4, Return to Brookmere. Again this was written by Rose Estes, "From TSR's Education Department", with cover art by Larry Elmore, and Frank Mentzer listed as D&D consultant. The interior art (25 full-page pieces, same as in the first book) is by Timothy Truman.

Part of the reason I picked the last two that I did (this one and #1, Dungeon of Dread) is that they were apparently the higher-rated ones in the series as reviewed by Marcus Rowland in White Dwarf #39 (per Wikipedia: 7/10 for Brookemere, 6/10 for Dread, and 4 or 5/10 for the rest). I'm going to be more cranky than Rowland was about this book: I liked it much less that Dread, for pretty much all the reasons below. At least it has more randomized pagination than the first book (not strictly increasing order of scenes); thus, the plot progression is not guessable by position in the media itself, so that's one single point in favor of Estes' evolution of the craft.

SPOILERS FOLLOW.

Generally speaking, I found this book a lot "easier" to get through -- on my recent re-read of the book, I navigated the "best possible" path on the very first try, and it seemed rather obvious to do so. Whereas book #1 required some risk-taking and aggression (in a perhaps more typical D&D dungeon adventure), this one is the opposite -- it features a single young elven prince on a scouting mission, and the best choices are usually in favor of caution, stealth, and avoidance. There are a few places with options like (a) go up, (b) go down, or (c) sit and think carefully about your situation. Okay, so that seems kind of unusual -- and in each case option (c) is the best course. (Maybe that just matches my own personal idiom.)

Committing fully to its dictum of "TSR's Education Department" for kids in the mid-80's, the monsters are in many cases juvenilized and nonthreatening -- which is something I personally detest. There is a moronic orc guard, a helplessly sneezing kobold, a weeping gnoll who likes jewelry and dislikes fighting, bowling giants who want you to help them cheat, etc., etc. The orc barracks has posters of female orcs hung up. There's a scene where child-monsters are interrogated by adults about seeing an intruder, featuring a painful ear-pinch, and dialogue like, "'Think they saw something?' asks one goblin. 'You know how kids are,' replies a kobold. 'Probably not.'" You get the idea. Even for "kids" books, monsters should be scary, not funny. IMO.

As I've said before, I suspect that only the first book of the series (Dread) has an adult protagonist. All the rest that I've seen have children in the lead roles, as is the case Brookmere. The other thing I've now seen is that in each case the protagonist has some smaller sidekick with them to give occasional advice and serve as comic relief. In Dread, it's a fearful halfling thief; in Brookmere, it is a sarcastic talking amulet; and in Dragon of Doom, it is a pet pseudo-dragon. A common gesture that Estes uses is that in catastrophic endings for the hero, narrative focus usually stays on the companion as they get away (softening the blow a bit, I suppose).

Okay, so let's talk about the structural design of the adventure; it has some glaring oddities and outright errors that are not apparent in other books in the series. Looking closely at the flowchart (see picture above), there is a topmost introductory section, and then generally the adventure tries very hard to funnel you into either "55-56 hobgoblins/disguise" (6 ways in), or right under it, "150 orc Swart" (4 ways in), and from there to the several victorious ending iterations on the bottom-right. There is a tangled-up set of possible scenes near the bottom left, which most likely winds up passing you back to that main branch at some point. And at the top-right, there is the "Mim's secret path" optional annex, with the single largest block of narrative text in the entire book ("75-91 Mazahs/Orobius"; 17 pages including 3 illustrations), which Estes was apparently very fond of, but doesn't affect the rest of the adventure in any way (and again, my very first review adventure took me through this path).

One questionable move is that there are some abrupt endings to the story available from even the very first or second choice branches (see "36 capture by orcs" and "12 home/exile"), which I did not see in other books. Another reason why I like this book so much less than Dread is that it's something of a tease: there are at least two scenes where the hero spies on meetings convened by very compelling, belligerent humanoid leaders -- the scenes go on for quite a while, building up these characters (a gnoll chief and a warlord wererat), and in each case there is a full-page illustration to go with them (plus, the wererat is featured on the front cover). But at no point in the book is it possible to have a confrontation with either one of them. Yes, the overall objective is one of reconnaissance: but still.

In many cases, the connections flat-out don't make sense, and show evidence of likely shoddy authorship (or else flat-out typographical errors). Several different scenes have you donning a goblin disguise in advance of the major "107-112 wererat audience" scene; and in at least one path, you can wind up donning the same disguise twice in sequence (p. 55-56 > 19 > 69-70). There is an irrelevant choice: at "142-143 cloaks/disguise", your options are "fool the orc guard" or "try the corridor on the right", but either path immediately takes you to the exact same guard ("150 orc Swart"). And there is an enormously surprising option that shows up in a fight on p. 99, "try to have Mim cast its sleep spell", when at no point previously have you been informed that Mim, your magic talking amulet, has any spells. (There is one scene where that spell-casting might get explained, but it's on a different path and much farther down the page -- actually right at the bottom: "40-50 win treas, et. al.")

Finally, a cardinal sin that I was wondering if I would ever see -- there is an infinite loop in the flowchart! It's possible to go through "71 rubble" near the upper-center, maneuver down through a sequence of monster encounters (bugbear, kobold, goblin, orcs), reach the bottom at "40-50" (with its extremely weak scene of adult monsters scolding children), and then take a corridor right back to "71 rubble" and do it all over again, ad infinitum! Of course, those narrative scenes make absolutely no sense to engage and trick a series of monsters in the exact same way multiple times. Tsk, tsk, tsk, Ms. Estes (Prof. Delta looks over his glasses and wags his finger).

Total number of variant endings: 12. Failure endings: 8 (6 destruction, 1 capture, 1 escape home to continued family exile). Victory endings: 4 (in each case with some plan to retake the castle).

7 comments:

  1. After reading your first post on the subject, I had the opportunity to pick up a batch of my old EQ books when I was visiting my Mom the other day. Brookmere is probably the only one of the first seven that I never owned, though I do think I read it at least once.

    What's remarkable to me is the sheer number of these books, Ms. Estes wrote in a two year period...quite prolific and creative!

    Mountain of Mirrors (which is pretty gritty/adult to my eyes) was always my favorite.

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  2. This was the second Endless Quest book I ever read (the first was a friend's copy of Dungeon of Dread) and I retain fond memories of it likely due to nostalgia.

    Thanks for plotting out the narrative paths in this one. I have long had a memory of stumbling onto an endless loop in this book, but was always unsure of whether it was actually the case. Glad to know my memory was correct.

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  3. One of the later Fighting Fantasy books, Night Dragon had an endless loop in it right near the beginning, meaning you couldn't actually leave Blacksand. I remember being a bit crushed that someone could fuck that up so badly.

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  4. KenHR: I sympathize, that would've bugged me for a long time, too. Glad I could clarify.

    Andrew: Ouch!!

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  5. I remember really loving EQ books, and this was one of my faves. While your criticisms are very on point (especially the "kiddishness" of many of the encounters), I still remember it as enjoyable.

    One thing...you see Brion (the main character from RtB) as a child? It describes him as "a young elf", but young for an elf could still be, like, 50. And unlike most of the child protagonists from other books (Pillars of Pentegarn, and so forth), Brion is clearly a competent warrior...he's armed and armored, and he actually does fight it out with gnolls, wolves, even a gelatinous cube. I saw Brion, Caric (from Dungeon of Dread), and Landon (from Mountain of Mirrors) to be the most "adult" protagonists (and note that these are 3 of the first 4 books)....they all carry swords and kill monsters. And those were probably my favorite books of the series.

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  6. spartakos: Yeah, I hope I'm not harshing on people's buzz, as apparently it's a lot of people's favorites. I'll say: My opinion was not so low before I comprehensively mapped out the whole thing and confirmed that (a) you can't fight the bosses, and (b) there's an infinite loop.

    Your point about Brion being a child or not is fair, I thought it about it a bit before concluding that. Partly it's stuff like (a) lots of the context being in relation to his father, (b) instructional tone that Mim takes with him, (c) fighting child monsters in many scenes, (d) cover art gives him childlike proportions. As well as just being in a pattern of other childlike lead protagonists for the books.

    But the way you read it is certainly defensible; it never comes out and specifies his age.

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  7. Oh, and (e) the plot point about his pets. Which as I read it now, "You cannot help but compare him to a pet weasel named Sissel, you had as a child." [p. 121] -- which works in your favor, as "had as a child" is past-tense.

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