Night Dragon | Author: Keith Martin | Illustrator: Tony Hough | Publisher: Puffin Books | Genre: Gamebook, Fantasy | Year: 1993
Once upon a time, Night Dragon was one of the most hated gamebooks in my entire childhood collection. Being the young, cheating scumbag that I was, its mathematical anti-cheating systems were frustrating. Its many long sentences of intricately written narrative; only aggravating. The whole production seemed to require a particular effort that jettisoned the straightforward Fighting Fantasy adventure shenanigans for something a lot darker and harder to digest.
My first impressions as a child were undeniably negative, but nevertheless Night Dragon would always hold a certain mystique in my memory and it would be among the first books that I sought to reacquire following my recent gamebook retrospective.
Reading Night Dragon more than twenty years later has proved most enlightening in this case as, upon finally putting it down, it quickly became apparent that A: kids don’t have a clue what they’re talking about, and B: this is my new favourite gamebook, Fighting Fantasy or otherwise!
It’s clear that author Keith Martin had an older audience in mind when he wrote Night Dragon; such is the effusive detail of his prose and the more advanced workings of his game mechanics. Widespread Internet access helps to smooth over the book’s fiddly cheat-proofing and Tony Hough’s awesome Gigeresque artwork has also only grown more sumptuous with age.
One look at the front cover tells you all you need to know about the plot; the Night Dragon has risen and only you can stop it. Your quest begins by seeking an audience with the Conclave of Dragons and from there it’s an epic journey into sealed ruins and mist-covered crypts, scouring frozen wastes and infiltrating dark cults in search of the magical artefacts that will you grant you enough power to confront the titular villain up close and personal.
Part of this book’s genius is in the way in which it sells the final battle. You just know that dragon will be a nightmare to put down and the writing reinforces the impending dread of facing it every step of the way. “The great quest to defeat the Night Dragon is a perilous one” boasts the hints section, and at SKILL: 17, STAMINA: 32, it ain’t fooling around either! Martin writes in a serious manner and his insistence that readers should conserve their resources and triple-check their bonuses conveys an honest plea that would only be clearer if he scribed: “No bullshit; it’s the Night Dragon.”
Suggesting that the rest of this book is mere fodder for that epic encounter would be disingenuous however as there’s plenty more going on here to make for an exciting time. Night Dragon is true to its roots in the sense that the path forward is pretty linear, but this facet is well concealed behind meaty paragraphs that afford the reader a certain freedom within the environments they explore. A town may feature several different locations for you to investigate and it’s rare that an important place you passed by will suddenly become inaccessible for no good reason.
A common item for sale in one town may appear in another – sometimes at a healthy mark-up! – and some items can serve multiple uses rather than just being a one-time affair. For instance, a longbow is just as helpful when hunting for food as it is for shooting baddies and just because an ice pick helps you succeed at climbing checks, it doesn’t mean that you can’t also use it for prying open the odd locked treasure chest.
In addition to a fully warranted and very welcome initial stat boost (you are meant to be a hero after all), Night Dragon introduces more unique mechanics in the form of statistics for Time, Nemesis, and Honour. These new rules are the weakest aspect of the book in general though as none of them have a profound impact on your play experience outside of the constant need to tweak numbers on your adventure sheet.
Time represents the passing of precious days. The more paragraphs you visit and the more long-winded activities you undertake will cause this statistic to rise. The idea is that the Night Dragon gets stronger as its awakening draws near so the more time you waste, the more time your enemy has to prepare for your arrival. Ultimately though, Time still has very little bearing on the final battle itself (outside of giving your enemy a few extra stamina points) and so the considerable amount of bookkeeping involved with updating this stat becomes a pointless chore before too long.
Nemesis points are a better idea as they gauge the notoriety and ‘heat’ that your character is attracting during their journey. Interacting with the Night Dragon’s agents and falling foul of peculiar omens will raise your Nemesis value and if it grows high enough, you’ll start attracting unwanted attention from some rather unsavoury individuals. Having a high Nemesis score can be an advantage in some ways too so the stat certainly does have potential to be interesting, it’s just that avoiding Nemesis encounters is too easy and thus it’s likely that most players will forget the number is even there at all.
Likewise is Honour. This statistic is supposed to represent your overall heroism and yet there are very few opportunities to increase it. Carrying home a poor man who was robbed and left for dead on the side of the road is a standout moment where Honour is concerned because it’s nice to perform an altruistic deed in the context of the story and actually get a characterful reward for it. Even then though, Honour only has a couple of useful applications towards the very end of the book and so overall it too ends up feeling like an afterthought.
Fighting in Night Dragon is usually quite serious and epic in scope. It has to be said though that the number of extra rules found in each combat encounter does unnecessarily complicate matters. Keeping track of which enemies have poisoned weapons, pre-emptive strikes, or various special attacks is certainly thematic and varied enough, but it also makes some combats awkward to resolve; not helpful for those times when you want to restart and quickly play through a familiar section.
Fortunately, that also brings us to the single best part of this book and that’s the almost total lack of instant death paragraphs. Night Dragon is stunningly well-designed in this regard as it offers up a challenging gameplay experience and immersive setting without feeling overly cheap or unfair. The difficulty level can be pretty steep at times – you’re toast if you miss certain key items during the ‘Dreamtime’ episode – and yet it feels fair when you start uncovering the hidden ways in which you can weaken or otherwise hurt the Night Dragon ahead of your fated confrontation.
Even though it has the traditional four hundred paragraphs, this is one of those gamebooks that feels massive in scope. Managing your dwindling food supply feels engrossing for once and keeping firm control of your stamina and general well-being is extremely satisfying due to the book’s delicately balanced cameos. There are plenty of memorable encounters (some of which are entirely optional) and the many stat bonuses and extra powers you can acquire will make you feel like a badass before your journey is over.
The “fifities” portion of Fighting Fantasy’s back catalogue is defined by demanding books that didn’t exactly send the series out on a high note. Night Dragon, I’m glad to finally say, is the exception.
The nature of Keith Martin’s writing here is more complex and adult-orientated than most great works in the series, but Night Dragon is strong enough both as a game and as a work of fiction to be essential reading for gamebook enthusiasts and worthy of immediate reappraisal from anyone else who thinks otherwise.