Knight Books, £3.99, ISBN 0-340-40154-0
The Battlepits of Krarth is the first gamebook in the Blood Sword series. Set in the world of Legend, this gamebook is unique in that it tries to replicate tabletop RPG as much as possible.
Let’s talk about the gameplay since this is the review of the first book in the series. The system itself involves the rolling of die, nothing new here, although it makes your life slightly easier if you have up to ten die available for use as damage rolls often involves more than two die. What is unique here is that up to four people can play in the campaign. This book states that each player ideally has a copy of the book, but hey, there’s nothing to stop you from playing all four characters yourself!
Like tabletop RPG games, players earn experience points once they complete a campaign, therefore leveling their character and becoming stronger for subsequent campaigns. There is a cap of the character level in each book, depending on how many people are playing. If you play a single character, you start out at the highest level, while you start out as a lower level character if there are more characters in the team. Again, there is nothing to stop you if you want to cheat and play four high-level characters, but that may make the campaign a little too easy. Once you have completed this campaign and your character has leveled up, these improved stats as well as any equipment and treasures you have can be brought forward to the next book.
I personally feel that while the system probably emulates tabletop RPG systems a little too faithfully as some aspects of the system – like having multiple players reading the same book – aren’t particularly compatible with the gamebook system, it does add some level of excitement and freshness to the campaign. Having characters of different classes running the same campaign often result in different outcomes, so the replay value of the gamebook is increased.
Oh yes, the characters. You can play a character from any of four available classes.
The Warrior is the standard hack-and-slash type whose advantage in the system is his high endurance points, melee damage, and strength. However, he is crippled by his code of honor, as this book subtly warns you, so the Warrior is the one who would most likely behave in Lawful Good (read: Stupid Good) manner at the most inconvenient moments. Violation of the Warrior’s code of conduct (like fleeing a combat scene or telling a lie) can actually result in penalty of his experience points. I personally recommend playing a Warrior only if you are in a team because the Warrior is the most inflexible of the four available classes, with very obvious weaknesses. Alone, the Warrior is horribly crippled by his reliance on brawn and he is also the most susceptible of all characters to mind and magic attacks.
The Trickster is the second best fighter, and with his Chaotic Neutral-like alignment behavior, I generally prefer playing a Trickster to a Warrior. The Trickster comes equipped with glib charm useful for tricking villains, handy skills like lock-picking and keen alertness, and more. He can fight almost as good as a Warrior, but unlike a Warrior, he also has means to get out of tricky situations without getting into a fight. He has better defense against magic and mind attacks too. The Trickster does well both solo and in a team.
The Sage can fight, but his real use is support in a party, as his knowledge and skills allow him to identify runes, decipher foreign languages, know of history of places and people, and more. He has also access to healing spells. When you face tricky traps and puzzles, a Sage will make your life easier. The Sage also has one of the best skills – Levitation – that often allows him to survive when other members of his party dies. His surprisingly good physical defense and very good magic and psychic defenses mean that the Sage is a pretty hardy adventurer even when played solo. If you play as a party, it especially makes sense to include a Sage.
The Enchanter is the magic-user. Weak in melee combat, he is nonetheless capable of casting all kinds of damaging offensive spells, the higher level spells creating damage across an area. He has good defenses against magical and psychic attacks, but horrible physical defense. Playing solo as an Enchanter is not recommended as his weak Endurance and Fighting Prowess means that he is crippled in situations where he cannot use his magic (and in later books, you will come across such situations). However, the Enchanter also has some support spells, including the notorious Summon Faltyn spell that conjures a shrewd and opportunistic fae creature that will carry out the Enchanter’s request, but with a price and often unpredictable results.
Anyway, let’s get to The Battlepits of Krarth. Krarth is an ice-capped land with strong Viking cultural elements. The ordinary folks are poor, subjugated by tyrannical rulers that call themselves the Magi. The Magi settle political disputes by holding a tournament every thirteen months in a maze-like battlepit. The tournament rule is simple: a Magus will sponsor a team of up to four people, and the team will duke it out with the teams sponsored by other Magi in the battlepits. The team to locate the Emblem of Victory first will win the tournament. The Magus who sponsors this team will then rule over the other Magi for the next thirteen months. In addition, other disputes among the Magi are also settled this way.
You are keen on taking part in the tournament this year, so when the campaign opens, you arrive at Krarth to discover that you now have to find a patron. There are three Magi who are still looking for champions, but one is rumored to be a vampire, the other an unpredictable tyrant, and the last a desperate Magus at the verge of losing much power and land to his rivals. Which one will you approach? That’s just the start of your problem. Surviving the Battlepits of Krarth is no easy feat as the Magi have ensured that there are enough traps and monsters in there to make your life most interesting.
The Battlepits of Krarth is a sterling example of how to create a great and compelling dungeon crawl adventure. There is no boring wandering around and stumbling upon the same location repeatedly. Every twist and turn leads to an interesting encounter, be it an encounter in a sinister hall of mirrors to a life-and-death skirmish with a giant, and there are plenty of fun to be had. Even the first act, choosing a patron Magus, is a very fun one, although a solo Warrior is going to have a challenge in his hands trying to figure out some of the tricks and conundrums thrown his way, heh. The level of challenge is high but not unfair.
The setting is very well detailed as well. The NPCs are all memorable with colorful traits, while there is a wily opponent that will be worth remembering because there is no doubt you will face him again in the future.
All in all, The Battlepits of Krarth is a splendid introduction to a new and exciting series of gamebooks. What could have been a simple and straightforward dungeon crawl turns out to be a delightful carnival of carnage, gore, and violence, with unexpected moments of humor. Check out the wonderful encounter with the hags for an example of how violence and humor come together so well.