Mammoth, £3.99, ISBN 0-7497-1485-9
Down Among the Dead Men is the second gamebook in the Virtual Reality Adventures, and this one takes you to the high seas where… well, you don’t get to sail the seas with aplomb, as, shortly after the campaign begins, the ship you are on goes down after being attacked by Belle Dame, the ship of the dreaded pirate villain Skarvench. Yes, his name is really Skarvench. And this happens to be your first trip to the New World too. For the next two years, you are forced to become an indentured slave on the ship. Your adventure begins one night when you and some fellow slaves sneak off into a rickety boat, hoping to find freedom or die trying. What dangers await you in these dangerous waters?
This campaign seems to offer some degree of flexibility, but the flexibility is illusionary. You may need a few runs before you discover that one ideal “true” path, and going along this true path will also gives you a more satisfying story to cap off a rather challenging campaign. This campaign is also enjoyable because it doesn’t sugarcoat the hardships of seafaring – there will be shortages of water, food, and morale to spice up things alongside difficult choices such as whether or not to cannibalize your own. The villains and monsters are standard types and the setting is a fantasy version of Europe during the seafaring boom of the 17th century, but Mr Morris has put things together very beautifully to create a vivid backdrop to your adventures.
Pirates and seafaring campaigns tend to be either very dull and clichéd or very good, and fortunately, Down Among the Dead Men leans towards the latter, thanks to its strong storytelling element and a rare emphasis on fellowship with NPCs that actually works. Dead? Not at all.