Rise of the Shadow King was released by Mantic Games a few years back but was recently discovered by Bill and I at this years AdeptiCon. We are both fans of Mantic and always stop by their booth. Both Bill and I have been relatively absent at this Con for a few years on account of both having young kids at home. What we hadn’t seen in the past was the gem that is this glorious little game book.
We both picked up a copy of Rise of the Shadow King and decided to do a play through. This is a traditional gamebook much like those of the past (think of the old Ian Livngstone and Steve Jackson adventure books). All you need is some scrap paper, a sharpened pencil, a few six sided dice, and off you go! This book takes place in the fantasy world of Mantica and sends you on an adventure to find the Shadow King and stop him from rising again.
Here is our take on it:
The Legacy of the Gamebook Revived
What was your first experience with a gamebook? Does this capture the essence of that a gamebook is? Elaborate on these points.
Bill: This was not my first experience with a gamebook, but I must admit, it’s been at least 15 years since I last read through a gamebook / choose your own adventure anything. Growing up I read quite a few Lone Wolf books and fondly remember Flight From The Dark. I remember reading through that book and not understanding the concept at first but once it clicked, I thought it was pretty fantastic.
I would definitely say this book struck enough chords and piqued my nostalgia for this kind of book. Having decisions to make, never sure if it’s safe to search that abandoned hovel or even drinking some random potion you found hit all the right spots for me.
Richy: My first experience when I was in grade school was with a more traditional choose your own adventure book. At some point my cousin passed me a gamebook that I could have sworn was a D&D book, but I honestly can’t recall. Both my brother and I took a crack at it, but at that point I honestly had no idea what an RPG was beyond Final Fantasy on the NES. I didn’t honestly begin collecting the Endless Quest series until roughly 2-3 years ago.
Rise if the Shadow King book hits all the points. It feels like the old books I’ve been collecting from second hand stores, stays completely true to the feel and intent. Much like any other choose your own adventure, I was genuinely anxious when making a decision because I wanted to make it to the final battle. This is the first time I flipped through a book like this without keeping my finger marking the page I had just turned from!
The Guts of the Dungeon Saga Gamebook
What worked? What didn’t work? This book heavily uses mechanics from the Kings of Wars ruleset, how did it play out here for you?
Bill: Overall I thought the ruleset worked out pretty well but some of the structure of Rise of the Shadow King seemed a little strange. This may be memory clouding my vision of how these books used to be, but I had fully expected to die long before the end of the story line. There was plenty of opportunity to perish, that’s for sure, but maybe I was lucky and it didn’t happen. That said, I also instinctively chose some “most likely not going to kill me” choices.
I am really glad it used the mechanics from Kings of War, it gave it a sense of familiarity both in terms of world and ruleset. The changes they made to adapt it to the book seemed to fit well. One thing that didn’t help was not spending all of my Gold Pieces in the market on the way out of town. It was hard to know if I’d get another opportunity and in my playthrough there was no other opportunity to buy an item. This may have been unique to my playthrough of course, but in retrospect, I would have spent all of my gold.
Richy: The story had a great mix of choices that kept you in the game and allowed you to recover as well as traps that could quickly wreck your journey. Two moments that really stood out to me and really pulled me in: the general store and rune puzzle in the middle of a dark and foggy marsh.
The general store pulled me in as there were all manner of odd ball items to choose from. Knowing that all would have some purpose at some point, it was super engaging to know that I was making a series of choices that would change the way I interacted with the story all at once.
The rune puzzle was simply fantastic. I did it, then paged around to see how it would have played out in various different ways. This was executed beautifully in the writing. I really loved how scenarios like this are written out in such a way that you have MULTIPLE ways to solve, it’s not just a choice “A” or “B”.
Being familiar with the Kings of War mechanics, the way they were utilized in this book felt super natural to me. I liked how the monsters could have modifiers such as “vicious” or “crushing strength”. It really changed the dice rolls in a way where it wasn’t just repetitious rolling of dice versus stats.
I did of course hit a few points where I felt like I was grinding on dice rolls, but these were usually pivotal boss/mini boss battles that felt tense anyway. It still worked even though it was a bit of rolling in some cases. I played this with my daughter. There was tension in the fact that now my rolling became part of a narrative that I was sharing. We had many exciting moments of finally landing a blow in a tense dice off with the enemy. She got in on some of the dice rolls, but for a 3 year old, she definitely began showing signs of dice rolling fatigue after an arduous battle.
Facing Off with the Shadow King
What a dick! How was the final battle? Was the book too brutal? Final thoughts and summary!
Bill: Prior to the Shadow King there was a Swamp Troll that almost did me in, taking two-thirds of my HP in a single fight. The final battle for me was a close fight and came down to the final few rolls. My final attack only needed to do one point of damage and I failed to do so. The Shadow King swung and landed 3 damage on me. It was a close fight to be sure, I used up all of the Fate Points I had in the process, but it proved to not be enough.
Compared to other choose your own adventure books I remember reading, Rise of the Shadow King wasn’t as brutal as those books were. I’m sure on subsequent reads that may change, I may find those dead ends, but the impression I got was this book didn’t have a lot of these. I did enjoy this book and the opportunities it presented in terms of choice and was actually taken by surprise how quickly I found the Shadow King in his lair once I arrived. There was no shortage of options in that area of the book. I’d recommend this book for sure to those who enjoy Kings of War, it was a fun time.
Richy: The Shadow King was kind of a dick! I fortunately played the story right in such a way that I fought him with the lowest stats possible. (I paged through the book to see what scenarios I missed out on, and I chose wisely!) He wound up crushing me anyway. I had a point where I was about to enter the Shadow King’s castle and there was this pristine bubbling stream. Either I could take the choice to drink from it or pass. I was down on healing items and low on HP. An opportunity to heal RIGHT where and when I needed it was just too good to be true. Without cheating there was no way to know what result drinking from the stream could have made. Guess I will find out on the next play through!
I would love to see the logic map for Rise of the Shadow King. I’m not rushing back into it. I’m going to let the dust settle and try and forget a few details. I honestly feel like I could easily play it again and have the story play out very differently.
The writing and story was engaging. Every choice left me on the edge. Very immersive book, very fun to play! I feel like I have connected with a way of gameplay from a different era. A time where storytelling computer games were not easily available at everyone’s fingertips. Gamebooks really offered an amazing way to have a solo RPG adventure when you didn’t have the means to assemble a group. Truly a player versus GM experience, absolutely loved it!
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