Lone Wolf 23: Mydnight’s Hero (Collector’s Edition) by Joe Dever
Holmgard Press, hardback, £16.99, April 2019, ISBN 9781527237728
Now that I’m cautiously confident Holmgard Press is here to stay – to see the Lone Wolf series through to its conclusion, at least – I’ve been spending more time on the website at www.magnamund.com. On the About page there is a history of the series by the renowned Jonathan Green, author of YOU Are The Hero: A History of Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks (parts 1 and 2, published in 2014 and 2017 respectively). I was struck by how much more upbeat it was than my own history of the series, with which I began my review of Lone Wolf 21: The Voyage of the Moonstone in 2016 (and updated in my review of Lone Wolf 29: The Storms of Chai in 2017). I hope my intention to be supportive of the late Joe Dever and my admiration for the innovative ways in which he overcame the obstacles presented by publishers were both clear, but I suppose Green’s history is written for a different purpose (promoting the series) to mine (providing some sort of critical appreciation). I nonetheless thought it would be interesting to compare the two, by which I mean fill in the copious gaps in my account using Green.
Green’s history begins before mine, in 1977, with a twenty-one-year-old Dever switching from tabletop wargaming to role-playing gaming, creating the world of Magnamund as a campaign setting for his Dungeons & Dragons game. As has been well-publicised, Dever became the first British winner of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Championship of America in 1982. Less well-publicised is the fact that he received a job offer from Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone (the creators of the Fighting Fantasy series of gamebooks) at Games Workshop. Interestingly, given my commentary on his business acumen, Dever decided that Lone Wolf would reach a wider audience as a gamebook on the basis that there were more bookshops than game stores. Three decades later, there are precious few bookstores left, but more importantly from a financial point of view, the gamebook has been replaced by videogames in a way that role-playing games haven’t (not yet, anyway). By this time, however, Dever had long switched to the online platform offered by Project Aon, in a sense pioneering what we would now called Open Access Publishing. Hutchinson, which is now part of Penguin Random House, commissioned four books from Dever and the first two were published in 1984, with Lone Wolf 1: Flight from the Dark selling into six figures in the first month.
Dever’s original plan was a series of twenty books – what would subsequently become the Kai, Magnakai, and Grand Master series – where players adopted the persona of Kor-Skarn (Lone Wolf) throughout. Green mentions the change of illustrators in 1987 and that Brian Williams illustrated the series until his death in 2010. Following the publication of all twenty books, Dever set to work on the New Order series, which he envisaged as consisting of twelve books following the adventures of a new protagonist (reproducing the Kai and Magnakai series, which are actually two parts of a single campaign in gaming terms or a single narrative in literary ones). Green mentions Red Fox cancelling the series in 1998 and concurs with my assessment about the wisdom of allowing Project Aon to distribute the books online (again, looking back, these were early ebooks). At the same time as Dever was having problems with Mongoose Publishing (who had taken over from Red Fox in 2007), he began publishing maps of Magnamund, drawn by Francesco Mattioli. Apparently Dever was prevented from setting up Holmgard Press before 2016 because of the need to wait for the rights to revert to him and, as I mentioned in my review of Lone Wolf 30: Dead in the Deep, the reversion came almost too late, with Dever dying in November of that year. His son, Ben, who has taken over Holmgard Press and the completion of the series, is also a writer – of scripts and screenplays – which is why the series is co-written with Vincent Lazzari, who had been assisting Dever with the Lone Wolf Role Playing Game (by Mongoose) since 2010.
Having integrated my history with Green’s, I’ll pick up where I left off in Lone Wolf 22: The Buccaneers of Shadaki, which concluded with True Friend (my Kai Grand Master of randomly-generated-name-fame) completing the mission given to him by Lone Wolf at the beginning of the previous gamebook, returning the Moonstone (one of the greatest artifacts of Magnamund) to its Shianti creators on the distant Isle of Lorn. After enjoying their thanks and hospitality, True Friend returns to the Port of Suhn and book 23 begins with him receiving a message from Lone Wolf in the Dessi consulate, courtesy of a magical seeing stone, about an emergency in the nearby Kingdom of Siyen. King Oridon of Siyen has been assassinated and the throne of the kingdom will shortly be claimed by Baron Sadanzo, an evil sorcerer. True Friend is the closest Kai Master to hand and his mission is to find the heir, Prince Karvas (who has been living in exile on the Isle of Sheasu for a decade), and convince him to return to the land of his birth within fifty days – before Harvestmas Day – after which his claim will be forfeit according to the Constitution of Siyen. Lone Wolf has despatched Wizard Acraban of the Magicians’ Guild of Toran to assist and True Friend must rendezvous with him in the city of Mydnight in Sheasu in twenty days.
The game is divided into three parts, which become longer, more exciting, and more difficult to play as one progresses. The narrative takes the form of a race against time, to reach Seroa, the capital of Siyen, before noon on Harvestmas Day. In the first part, which is relatively undemanding, travel is by ship – sailing ship to the Island of Sheasu and then skyship from Sheasu to Seroa – but the journey is interrupted when the skyship crash-lands in the Great Forest of Kelderwood. Part two is a journey on foot to the city of Bakhasa, ruled by the dreaded Autarch Sejanoz (who will play a significant role later on in the New Order Series), ending with the escape of True Friend and Karvas from the city on horseback. The final chapter begins with the flight from Bakhasa, involves a substantial amount of time in the saddle, and ends – all being well – with Karvas crowned King and True Friend invested as a Knight of Siyen. What works particularly well in this race against time plot, with True Friend and Karvas the target of several pursuits along the way, is that the pace of the game never flags, in addition to which one is never sure of what will come next, maintaining the sense of suspense throughout. One of the features of the Lone Wolf series that has elevated it above its many competitors (in the eighties at least) is the lack of linearity of the narratives and this lack is especially evident here, where – as the player – all one can be sure of is that the conclusion will be in Seroa. How one gets there – the route, the means, and the obstacles – is all entirely up for grabs.
The mechanics of the game work very well. I found only one (typographical) error: illustration XVII matches section 295, not section 294 (as the gamebook states), which caused little confusion as the sections are right next to one another. There is only one section where I feel compelled to offer walkthrough-type advice. When you arrive at the South Gate of Seroa (and I’m not sure whether there are any other options) you must enter the city inconspicuously, i.e. risk the delay of the long queue, otherwise you will lose the opportunity to separate Baron Sadanzo from his Gem of Naar, which makes him indestructible for a lowly Kai Grand Sentinel. I also found the possession and mastery of a bow particularly useful in this adventure (which is not always the case in the series). As with all the other Collector’s Editions, there is a bonus adventure: “Lost in the Kelderwastes”, written by Florent Haro and Vincent Lazarri. The player adopts the persona of Acraban, left with his downed skyship Starstrider in the Great Kelderwood Forest, and involves the hunt for a lost patrol of his crewmen. As regular readers of my Lone Wolf reviews will recognise, the adventure meets both of my criteria for a bonus game: the plot dovetails neatly with the main adventure (literally beginning where True Friend left Acraban) and provides a contrast of player character, a magic-user as opposed to a ranger to use Advanced Dungeons & Dragons terminology. The adventure is short (150 sections as opposed to the 350 of the main adventure), but original, interesting, and well worth playing.