A medieval soldier fights to return a stolen religious artifact to its priory.
A Saint Beckons has a similar atmosphere to Ken Follett's novel The Pillars of the Earth. Players who enjoy medieval stories will find this one well researched. The introduction, for instance, portrays a flawed hero with shifting allegiances and a reverence for monks. One might expect this on a checkered landscape of feudal England. The verisimilitude remains high throughout.
The crude map gives a poor first impression, though. Douglas insisted on drawing smoke fumes over the buildings on his map of orange, brown, blood red, and neon green—not exactly a ragged lion.
The rules offer a Diabloesque gear selection system without overcomplicating things. But differences in character classes and gear choice feel too subtle and uninteresting for any characterization to shine through. For a 100 section gamebook, it may help to design sharper, more startling differences in stats instead of a vague feel over many battles. The rules do create a sense of playing a lowly soldier, though. Douglas clearly wanted to keep his story as realistic as possible.
I figure the heavy research and lengthy prose led to some oversight in other areas. The combat rules fail to describe the concept of rounds—that players must keep rolling until the battle ends. Likewise, the halberd description mentions no advantage, only a penalty. The first combat demands three rounds with the enemy always surviving at the end, which makes no sense with an “Instant Kill” roll. Similarly, the IK rule causes uncertainty when fighting vagabonds, more than one enemy sharing the same score, and on 36 where players fight until the opponent's health drops to 4. Instant Win would sound more appropriate.
The writing tries to add flare by breaking the rules of English, but this tends to look like clumsy error rather than stylistic choice. For the second sentence of the story, this won't do: “The arrow head [sic] is still lodged deep in your thigh, throbs like the devil.” Grammatical mastery must shine everywhere before the rare rule-breaking looks intentional and clever. Strunk and White suggest keeping the rule-bending to dialogue, and only then for characters who talk in a fragmented way.
Consider the fanciness found here among the careless switching between em and en dashes:
“You'd managed to down a small tankard of mead and some beef tough as boot leather – or perhaps it was boot leather! - yet even this sorry feast comprised your breakfast; you haven't eaten for, what...twelve, thirteen hours?”
In just one sentence, we get an apostrophe (fine), a simile, a metaphor, an em and en dash, exclamation mark, semicolon, commas (fine), ellipsis, and a question mark. English gives us over a million words to play with, and people insist on sprinkling the symbols around instead. I find it most helpful in fiction to use periods frequently, commas when needed, and all other symbols (semicolons, exclamation marks, dashes, parentheses, and colons) almost never.
The prose has fewer mistakes than many other 2015 entries, but still too many. To mention a few, 76 needs a you, 7 describes “his foe are,” and 63 has a misplaced quotation mark. In this raging beast of a sentence, Douglas forgot that the colon introduces two things:
“Something is definitely amiss – or, more precisely, two things: that there's no purpose for the Raven to rise early for he will catch any stray foe, whatever time or place, as it's all left to chance with no specific objective, besides which it would be too dark to track them down.”
Less serious but still-noticeable problems occur throughout with restating information: “you stagger onwards through the dusky gloom, panting with tremendous effort.” Dusky and gloom mean the same thing, and panting already implies effort. Two clichés, to the ends of the earth and more than meets the eye, appear in the same sentence.
In a few places, the vague prose provides little to no visualization. On 59, Roubert remains completely invisible.
“Nevertheless, he defies both men as best he can. Witnessing such brutal behaviour towards an elderly man – and a priestly one at that – boils your blood.”
How exactly does he “defy,” and what counts as the “best he can”? And what “brutal behaviour” happens? The writing makes many promises but no delivery.
The story has many twists and surprises, though it tries to hide the protagonist's a posteriori knowledge. Section 95, for example, works awkwardly by offering the barn option to merely get out of the rain. But by that point, the player may have learned that the goal of the game lies in there.
A scene can take too long to make its point, as on 73. Too much small talk occurs, which editors generally discourage in favor of repartee. Section 56 seems like a wasted opportunity to use the combat system. Players may also find the same problem with no-brainer choices that Lloyd and Badowski use. Obviously, charitable actions offer rewards in a game with Saint in the title. The treacle may not suit everyone, though it does create a likable protagonist of yore.
While the writing looks a bit sloppier than Armstrong's, more effort, story, worldbuilding, and research went into Douglas's Saint Beckons. Section 42 has some great examples of that subtle poetry or lyricism I mentioned in a prior review.
“The road to Barrow is soon shrouded by trees - although, at this time of year, their branches aren't so dense with leaves; most of which have fallen to create an amber carpet that rustles loudly beneath your feet. You only hope any nearby vagrants don't hear you. Most birds have fled south to warmer climes, their song now dwindled to only a few trills and ugly croak of crows. Chimney smoke mingles with a chill air. The land is being cloaked in autumn's sombre embrace, a vanguard to winter's white thrall. A short while later, you hear the distinct clamour of battle: the clanging of swords, shouts of frustrated effort and pain.”
The characters, however, could use some of that subtly. Often, they jump in and practically yell, “Behold! A character!” with their patois.
Overall, Douglas has a good enough grasp on English, especially dialogue rules, to make the reading easy and enjoyable. With its realism and mood, the writing takes the reader into a lively medieval era. The story goes far with its character arcs and plot twists. The choices involve some strategy and thought about previous information. Players can also make a dexterity 11 character who can annihilate most of the enemies, which I see as a strength these days. So far in my reviews, A Saint Beckons appears to have the most effort put into it, except for the map.