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Item - The Shadow of Shargan

Series: Proteus — no. 13
Author: Caldwell, Elizabeth
Illustrators: Brunner, F. (cover and poster)
Campbell, Paul (interior)
Challenger, P. (interior)
De Leuw, Dave (interior)
Dunn, Mark (interior)
Harrod, Gary (interior)
Hunter, Alan (interior)
Mitchell, Judy (interior)
Date: 1987
Ed's Thoughts: Despite the outcry in response to issue 11, this is a sequel to it.

You, as the most promising new member of the Promethean Guild, are about to embark on your first (and very probably last) mission for them. The Guild has received an emissary from the distant Kingdom of Aarlach, seeking their aid. The Sorcerer-scientist Shargan has established a base inside the dormant volcano at the heart of Aarlach, and is now believed to be developing a "terrifying weapon". The Guildmasters are not convinced that Shargan's plans are as world-threatening as the people of Aarlach believe, and they won't send a fully qualified Guildmember to deal with him as the King is only offering a measly 50,000 GP reward (the fact that you can hire a couple of guides for just 5 GP suggests a rather flawed grasp of economics on the part of Ms. Caldwell). Rather than simply send the emissary back home, they've decided to offer the mission to their best trainee. It'd probably help pay off your student loan, or something.

Assuming you accept the mission, more science-fantasy shenanigans lie ahead. As before, there's a third attribute called Skill, and you get to use that nifty laser sword again. Mind you, if you have beaten issue 11 but didn't bother making a note of your winning character's stats, don't worry. You'll be rolling up a new one before long anyway.

After successfully completing TSoS on my 46th attempt (not counting however many goes I had before this year), I have come to the conclusion that it's the Proteus equivalent of Spellbreaker. Insane difficulty spoils what could have been a very enjoyable adventure.

If you get poor initial rolls you might as well not bother. There's one unavoidable fight with a Dexterity 12 opponent, and a good chance of having to fight one that's effectively just as bad. You soon learn how to avoid the other double-figure Dexterity opponents, of which there are at least half a dozen (and you don't get so much as a congratulation for defeating the nastiest of these). Failure is also guaranteed if you mess up either of two Skill rolls, so a decent score there is also of great importance. Even if you do have significantly above-average attributes, you'll still need to be very lucky. The correct path is distinctly narrow, albeit not Livingstone narrow. However, good stats and knowing the right direction when it matters still won't be enough a lot of the time. The thing is, immediately after acquiring a certain essential item you'll be killed if you roll under 5 on a d6. That's right – a single incident on the 'safe' path has a two thirds chance of ending in Instant Death. It's not the only random fatality on the correct route, either, though no other is quite so bad.

What makes it worse is the pointlessness of the random death in question. Elsewhere you can stray into a dangerous situation that you only have a 50% chance of surviving, but I'm nowhere near as bothered by that one. The text makes it clear that you are in deep trouble, and will only get out of it by the skin of your teeth. My notes include a 'Yee-haaah!' following a successful resolution of that confrontation. This other, harder one, which cannot be avoided, has no such sense of threat. Either you die or you continue with your quest, unaware that there was any danger in the first place. While not a bad idea in itself, the cursed item which only gradually affects your character doesn't really work, partly because it's a bit obvious, but mainly because there's next to no chance of your surviving long enough to suffer the ultimate consequences of its effect on you. Only a masochistically curious player would play through to that conclusion.

Even victory is no guarantee of survival. There are two possible climaxes, depending on which door you choose near the end. Choose one, and a bug described in a little more detail below means that you're doomed, but if that mistake had been fixed prior to publication, you'd be able to defeat Shargan, and then you'd die. Choose the other door and you have a different opportunity to defeat Shargan, plus a chance to get out intact if the dice continue to favour you. Not that the odds of getting the required score are exactly favourable, but you might remain lucky.

To give Caldwell her due, her writing does a good job of evoking the setting (despite one blunder outlined below). There are constant reminders that this is a very unstable region, rather than it just being generic tunnels with the occasional death by lava.

Inevitably, there are puzzles, some of them quite challenging. The second part of the one at section 65 is flawed, though. Even so, the answer isn't hard to work out, but mathematical purists are liable to get annoyed. Dullthus' brooch puzzle seems even more out-of-place than the Barbarian Giant's jewel riddle in CotPG, and only appears to have been included for the sake of bringing the section count up to 225 and giving Judy Mitchell an excuse to draw another grotesque figure.

It's another bug-ridden adventure. Items X and Y (avoiding spoilers) lie on mutually exclusive paths, and you cannot get to the heart of Shargan's lair without item Y, yet one of the climactic encounters requires you to have item X. Section 215 can be reached from the east or the west, but assumes that you came from the west. The rules governing the crossing of the lava lake are not clear enough - oh, and it's obviously Hollywood lava, the sort that only harms you if you touch it, unlike real lava, which would roast you alive if you got that close to it. Etymologists could argue for hours about whether or not the female Android at section 23 is a contradiction in terms. 'Weird' is misspelt at section 73. You're best off failing the roll at 186. Section 18 leads to section 17.

The artwork's not bad, though P. Challenger's Savage doesn't fit the tone (and, thanks to a rather odd perspective, appears to have just one leg) and Judy Mitchell's female Android is a bit too dark. Mark Dunn's picture of Shargan and the superfluous near-naked woman is striking, but there's something wrong with their fingers. Campbell and Harrod's illustrations are fine, but not particularly memorable.

The Shadow of Shargan is ultimately disappointing. There are some great moments in there, but they are dwarfed by its flaws. I'd still rate it above several other issues, though.

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