Tuesday, 24 May 2016

You Can't Crown a Dead Prince

In what turned out to be the last days of the Puffin run of Fighting Fantasy books, Ian Livingstone attempted to grab the attention of a new generation of readers with a series of First Fighting Fantasy Adventures entitled The Adventures of Goldhawk. These were significantly shorter than standard FF books, and had a simplified version of the FF rule system (which was never that complicated anyway), larger pages, and full colour internal illustrations. The series made fewer concessions to its intended readership in one regard, though: most of the books had just as narrow a 'true path' as every gamebook Livingstone had written since Caverns of the Snow Witch.

Back in the days when I could afford to randomly browse for gamebooks on eBay, my searching once turned up a lot of the first two Goldhawk books for little enough that I decided to see what they were like. The first one so failed to impress me that I didn't even bother attempting the second one until my previous attempt at playing through the whole series of FF (including spin-offs) in order. My playthrough of the first book, Darkmoon's Curse, still exists, and can be read here.

The books are set in and around the Kingdom of Karazan, which has been at war with Orcs for two years. Their fortunes have taken a turn for the worse since the death in battle of their King. His crown (which he had with him despite its providing inadequate head protection, judging by the illustration of it towards the end of the book) was stolen, and is now in the possession of the chaos wizard Darkmoon. Then an assassin poisoned the heir to the throne, Prince Goldhawk, leaving him comatose. Goldhawk's Dwarf servant Orlando attempted to retrieve the crown, but was captured by Darkmoon, who transformed him into an animated tin pig before sending him back to Karazan empty-trottered. In these dire circumstances, court wizard Marris resorts to using a Time Gate to provide a replacement for the incapacitated Prince (who, despite the title of the series, never actually gets up to any adventuring).

In another time and place (supposedly here and now, though if that were true, this blog entry would be neither completed nor posted for reasons that are about to become apparent) I am reading a book about Karazan, only to get dragged through the Time Gate into Goldhawk's bedchamber and transformed into his exact likeness. This bothers me a lot less than it should, and I accept the role of Goldhawk-substitute and the mission to try and get back the crown without complaint. To aid me in this quest, Marris equips me with a suit of golden armour (not actual gold, I hope, since that would be appallingly heavy and provide mediocre protection in battle), 10 gold pieces, and Edge, the finest sword in the land (who is also animated, and warns me not to use him against any opponents without asking permission).

Before long I'm on my way, accompanied by Orlando, who soon starts bickering with Edge for no good reason. We reach a river, and Orlando mentions a nearby bridge, as he's not capable of swimming in his new form. The bridge turns out to be guarded by a man in spiked black armour (to which illustrator Russ Nicholson has added gold and blue ornamentation), who demands half my money in return for letting me cross. Instead, I ask Edge if he's willing to inflict some harm, and he agrees, so I'm into my first fight.

The combat system in these books is very basic. Characters have only one stat, namely Skill. Mine was automatically set at 8, while the Dark Knight's is just 7. To win a fight, all that is required is to roll equal to or above the opponent's Skill on two dice, and I get the first roll. Neither of us succeeds first time round, but the second roll for my character is high enough to kill the Knight, and I continue on my way, unperturbed at having just ended somebody's life. Sure, it's business as usual for your average FF hero, but I'd hope that most civilians from this day and age would be less blase about the whole thing.

After a while, the path splits. There's a handy signpost, which indicates that one turning leads to Longshadow Forest. The other sign merely says 'Vanish', and on my first attempt at this book, I made the mistake of thinking that that could be a warning of what would happen to anyone who went that way. As I'm reading the signs, a crow flies down and reveals itself to be a messenger from Marris, warning me that I shall have to acquire the Golden Hand wristlet from the Howling Tunnels before I confront Darkmoon.

I take the path to Vanish, which turns out to be a village full of unhappy and disgruntled people. One of the locals, who goes by the name of Sad Sam, explains that everyone's so miserable because they keep losing things. It's unclear whether the place got its name because of this, or the name was chosen for some other reason and mysteriously caused the locals to start misplacing their property. Regardless, Sam lists three items of his that have gone missing just today, and says that if I give him 4 gold pieces, I can have any of them that I manage to find. I take him up on his offer, thereby reaching what is presumably supposed to be a puzzle, though spotting the mislaid objects in the illustrations for this section is unlikely to prove much of a challenge to anyone who can see.

Leaving the village (which, regrettably, didn't work its malign magic on either of my tiresome sidekicks), I proceed to the forest. In a clearing we find a Gnome sitting on a large mushroom. He has a bird on his shoulder, though the book only points this out when Orlando sneezes (tin pigs apparently having very sensitive nasal passages in spite of their being composed of metal) and scares it off. The Gnome is displeased, and threatens to turn us into frogs, but when I tell him of my quest, he suddenly becomes friendly. That's a bit odd, as he reveals himself to be a wizard and a hermit, and as heroes on quests have a tendency to go pestering wizards for advice and assistance, you'd expect him to have the same sort of attitude towards them that most people have towards PPI reclaim cold callers.

Though no longer angry, the Gnome is still unhappy that his Firebird has been frightened away, as he's worried that some of the Orcs in the forest will kill and eat it. Trying to recover the bird is an optional side quest, but I'll do it anyway. We search for a while, eventually coming across a couple of Orcs, who have found the bird and are trying to shoot it out of the tree in which it's resting. We attack, and I kill one of the Orcs with ease. Orlando only manages to knock over the other, so I grab a branch and smack it in the head. Another 'spot what's hidden in the picture' puzzle ensues, and the Firebird is better concealed than any of Sad Sam's stuff. Still not hard to find, though, so I capture it and return it to its owner, who rewards me with a Ring of Lightning.

Continuing through the forest, we come across a bald-headed Axeman fighting a Treeman. Both ask us for help, but the Treeman's need appears greater, so I restrain the Axeman, who reveals himself to be in Darkmoon's service. The Treeman expresses his gratitude by giving me some magic sap, which boosts my Skill, and advises me to seek Lady Helena, who can provide directions to the Howling Tunnels. He can't remember whether she lives in Westwater or Eastwater, and wrongly guessing which it is led to my failing my previous online attempt at this adventure. I don't make the same mistake this time.

Arriving at the village, I am surrounded by cheering Elves, who take me to see Lady Helena. She's on a throne beneath a lemon tree, and both she and the lemons are smiling. When I explain my quest, she tells me the wrist on which I must wear the wristlet for it to work, provides me with some garlic, and gives me a Potion of Good Fortune. She then tells me that I must now go to a place too evil for her to name, though I can find the way there by counting the lemons on her tree. That shouldn't be tricky, though a previous owner of the book evidently found it challenging enough that they felt the need to write numbers on all the lemons in the illustration.

While the number of lemons makes clear the number of the section to which I must turn to get to this place of evil, there's no in-story connection between the number and the place. The number just inexplicably causes us to go to the other of the villages named by the Treeman. Using the A=1 code that crops up so often in gamebooks doesn't help, as the number of lemons corresponds to a letter that appears part of the way through both village names. And the description of our arrival there doesn't really allow for the possibility that saying the number caused us to be magically transported there. It just doesn't make any sense if you think about it.

In any case, we proceed to the other village, which has a sign warning that strangers are not welcome. Undeterred, I stride into it, noting that the villagers are all fearful. A bell tolls, and while you'd expect the locals to already know the significance of this warning sign, someone still bothers to point out that it's the time that 'the beast' feeds. The streets clear, apart from my small party, and a loud roar prompts me to draw Edge without even asking for permission. Orlando indicates an alley he thinks we should avoid, so I stride into it and encounter a gruesome, drooling, skull-headed monstrosity in chainmail. The Skullbeast attacks, but I kill it with my first blow.

Taking the money I find on the corpse, I return to the street. Before long I notice a shop filled with bric a brac, and enter in spite of the sign reading 'Closed'. A balding man with a frown introduces himself as Domehead, and tells me that the shop isn't open, and in any case, nothing is for sale, so I ask if he'd be interested in a trade. That piques his interest, and he asks what I have to trade.

This is where my first attempt at the book ended, because the only items I'm allowed to offer Domehead are ones that can be found in Vanish, which I hadn't visited, and there's no 'if you have neither' option. It wouldn't have been difficult to turn back a page and choose the non-trade option, but I was too annoyed at the book's poor design to continue with it at the time. This time round I have both tradable items, so I offer the one that duplicates an unhelpful item from one of Ian Livingstone's earlier gamebooks. In return, Domehead gives me a pair of Elven Boots, a Magic Staff, and some Blue Cheese.

He also loudly accuses me of stealing from him as soon as I leave the shop, as a result of which several armed guards (who didn't seem to be around back when the Skullbeast was making the streets unsafe for the citizens of this miserable dump) charge at me. I flee into another alley, and when I reach a junction, I pick the turning that leads to a dead end. Edge is keen to spill their blood, but one of them shoots me in the neck with a poisoned dart, causing me to black out.

I regain consciousness in a cell. Orlando is with me, but Edge is in the room on the other side of the door, making snarky observations about his inability to free us. However, Edge is the only item the guards bothered to take from me before throwing me into the cell, and the key to Sad Sam's front door (which is one of the other items I picked up in Vanish) conveniently fits the lock on this cell, so I have no trouble breaking out. We flee from the village before any further unpleasantness can befall us.

It's getting dark, and the only shelter in the area (other than in the grotty dump we've just escaped) is a ruined house. It's better than nothing, and once we've settled down there, I spend some time chatting about the region with my companions before dropping off. The sound of footsteps wakes me a few hours later, and I just have time to gather my wits before a Vampire enters the ruin. The first time I played this book until reaching an actual ending, this was where I failed, having gone the wrong way after the Treeman incident and thus not having received the Garlic from Lady Helena. This time round I'm able to repel the bloodsucking fiend, and while doing so I spot a trapdoor that I somehow failed to notice earlier.

We go through the trapdoor, and I bolt it behind us (good thing it wasn't bolted before I tried opening it). Down below is a dank and damp passageway, along which we head. After a while, we reach a door that has 'KEEP OUT' written on it, so naturally I open it. The room beyond has large spiders all over the floor (and, in the accompanying illustration, at least one wall and the ceiling). Also in the room is a leather pouch, on the end of a rope attached to the ceiling, and there's another door on the far side.

As this is an Ian Livingstone book, there's a strong probability that entering the room without possessing the correct item will prove lethal, but not acquiring whatever is in that pouch will guarantee failure in the long run. I enter the room, and when the spiders prove non-hostile, Orlando joins me. As soon as I take the pouch, the door slams shut and the walls begin closing in, but when I wedge the Magic Staff I got from Domehead between the walls, they stop. The exact same thing can happen in a Tunnels & Trolls solo (IIRC, Deathtrap Equalizer Dungeon), but the set-up is conventional enough that the two authors could easily have come up with it independently of each other.

The pouch contains three precious stones, all of them types that could be acquired in Deathtrap Dungeon, and two of them featuring in that book's endgame. I wonder if the third is the only one I'll need here. The door on the other side of the room is locked, and apparently not even Sad Sam's key will open it, but the door through which I entered can now be opened again, so I return to the passageway.

Further on, we reach another door. Looking through it, I see a large monster (identified by Orlando as a Bonecrusher) chained to a wall, and a wooden chest on the other side of the room. I head over to the chest, and encounter another example of authorial sloppiness: the text asks if I've drunk a Potion of Good Fortune. There is no way of getting here without encountering the Vampire. The Vampire kills any character who has no Garlic. In this book, Garlic can only be acquired from Lady Helena. Meeting Lady Helena automatically leads to being given a Potion of Good Fortune to drink. Therefore, reaching this stage of the book without having drunk the Potion is impossible, so there was no need for the question, and there's no need for the paragraphs covering not having drunk the Potion.

As a result of my having drunk the Potion, the Bonecrusher's chain is short enough that I have no trouble evading the creature on my way to the chest, which contains a map of the Howling Tunnels and a warning about where Troglodytes may be encountered. The map doesn't specify where the Tunnels are, though, and despite having been to the person the Treeman said would tell me the way to them, and having gone on to the place where she sent me, I still don't have any idea of their actual location.

We return to the passage, and it leads to a flight of steps. At the top of these is another trapdoor, which opens onto a nondescript plain. I wonder what purpose the tunnel served back when the house from which it led was intact. I also wonder if Ian Livingstone ever gave any thought to the matter, or if he just threw it in for the sake of having a secret(ish) passage.

Orlando complains of being cold and hungry, so we start looking for somewhere we can find food and shelter. Instead, we discover a large, beetle-like insect which intermittently sprays a toxic white substance on the ground. According to Orlando, it's a Litterbug, which makes me curious as to what sort of stuff people were dumping on the streets in Ian Livingstone's neighbourhood back when he wrote this.

A Centaur attacks the Litterbug with a spear and kills it. I greet the Centaur, who is friendly towards us. He doesn't know where the Howling Tunnels are, either, but he offers to take us to the village of the Big Blue Mice, who apparently know everything, and are sure to tell us in return for a gift. We accept the offer.

The Big Blue Mice are what the name suggests: bipedal mice roughly the size of humans, with blue fur, skin, and houses. I stroll into a smithy and ask the mouse at work there if he can direct us to the Howling Tunnels. He replies in a strange language, which is created in exactly the same way that I 'invented' an alien language back when I was about nine years old, so I'd say that this puzzle is pitched just right for the target readership. Translated, the mouse's words turn out to be telling me that I'll have to hand over some blue cheese if I want my question answered. Good thing that just such a foodstuff was another of the items I got from Domehead. And that I didn't give it to Orlando when he was whining about being hungry (a detail he seems to have forgotten by now).

In return for the cheese, the mouse tells me how to get to the Tunnels, and adds a warning about a Dragon which might be encountered in them. I thank him, and we set off as directed. After some time we reach mountainous terrain, and catch sight of the landmark indicated by the mouse. Behind it is a cave entrance, through which we go. The cave is lit by torches, and guarded by a Cave Troll, though the Troll is currently asleep. Again the book brings in superfluous paragraphs by asking if I've drunk the Potion of Good Fortune. You know, it would have been more interesting if I'd been given the Potion in a bottle and told that its effect would only be temporary. That could provide a minor quandary for repeat readers - the knowledge that there are at least two situations in which the Potion can be of use prompting a little reflection on when is the best time to take it. But no, we just get intermittent wastage of ink and paper on impossible situations.

We manage not to disturb the Troll. As we head further into the Tunnels, we hear what sounds like a shriek, and Edge insults Orlando because there's been no pointless squabbling in a while. The scream is repeated, and we hear running footsteps and hysterical laughter. It thus comes as a minor surprise that the next thing we encounter is the Dragon of which the mouse spoke. Despite the noises we've just heard, it's asleep, and it is thus a little odd that in order to get past it, I need a Potion of Invisibility. Conveniently, just such a Potion was the third thing I got back in Vanish, and there's enough of it for me to share with Orlando, so we can both pass through the cave without being spotted by the slumbering Dragon.

Up ahead, the tunnel splits. Symbols are carved on the walls of both passages that lead on, and one of those symbols was mentioned in connection with the Troglodytes that the note on the map warned me to avoid. The same two symbols turned up on a couple of doors in Temple of Terror, and the one that didn't lead to death in that book is the one that doesn't lead to the Troglodytes in this one.

I take the non-Troglodyte passage, which leads to a cavern containing a marble fountain in the shape of a nymph pouring water from an urn. The nymph is wearing a golden wristlet, and the text and illustration don't match well here: the wristlet is described as being 'in the shape of a hand', but looks like a straightforward band with a hand attached. Also in the cavern is the source of the screams: a Banshee. She is also depicted in a manner that doesn't entirely match the text, as green skin is not a common feature among old women.

The Banshee attacks. This is the toughest fight in the book, the Banshee having a Skill equal to mine, and I've never got beyond this point while playing by the rules. On this occasion, neither of us manages to land a blow for something like half a dozen rounds of combat, but eventually the Banshee wins a round, and that's all it takes to ensure that this is yet another unsuccessful attempt at the book.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

By Fitful Starlight

As I once mentioned before, there was a period when Flying Buffalo produced a magazine called Sorcerer's Apprentice, several issues of which contained short solo adventures for Tunnels & Trolls. I own four of those issues, and now that I've attempted all the official T&T solos that weren't obviously out of my league, I'll be working my way through the magazine-based ones I have yet to try. The earliest one I own is Robert B. Schofield's Thief for Hire, from issue 12.

The adventure is for a warrior, or a rogue who knows no magic. There seems little point in creating a character in the latter category, as the only advantage a rogue has over a warrior is the ability to use magic. It may be unwise, but I'm going to bring back my character from Solo for the Intellectually Challenged, who has used some of the treasure acquired in that misadventure to buy a proper weapon and some armour. His low Strength and Dexterity limit his options, but he's now as well-equipped as he can be in his current condition. I should also give him a name, and in view of his general ineptitude and lack of self-awareness, I think he'd go by something like Blugen the Brilliant.

Being a Great Hero is proving trickier than expected. I start this adventure in the Dead Dragon Inn, downcast at only having acquired 500 gold pieces on my latest excursion into a dungeon. Considering how most T&T characters fare, this is roughly equivalent to lamenting having won a mere £500,000 in the National Lottery, so maybe my not-that-smart character isn't such a bad fit for the adventure after all.

A man in dark robes speaks with the innkeeper, and they both look at me. I wave. The robed man then comes over to my table, and asks if I'm interested in a short and well-paid job. I express interest, so he explains that he requires a certain scroll which is currently held in the royal library at the local palace, and is prepared to pay a thousand gold pieces for it. I agree to have a go at it, and we arrange to meet outside the palace in an hour.

Nothing untoward happens in the intervening time, and at the foot of the palace wall, my new employer gives me a rope with a grappling hook, directions to the royal library, and instructions on how to identify the scroll he needs. He wishes me luck, and I start work.

Even with the rope and grappling hook, climbing the wall is a challenge for a clumsy oaf like my character. On my first two attempts, I slip and fall, taking some damage in the process, but a lucky roll gets me up there on my third try. From the top of the wall, I can see a courtyard with two guards in it. On the far side of the courtyard is a well-lit hallway leading into the palace. Fighting the guards is not likely to go well for me. The alternative, crawling along the top of the wall and then using my rope to swing down into the hallway, could go disastrously wrong, but how can I resist the lure of such a swashbuckling strategy?

The roll is tricky enough that my failing at it comes as no surprise. I do make it to the ground intact, but somebody spots me, and yells, "Halt!" Given my stats, running away is probably a worse idea than confronting the guard, so I turn to face him. The two guards find my attempt at breaking into the palace amusing, and order me to surrender. I draw my francisca (it's a type of axe) and attack.

The guards have worse armour than I do, but their broadswords do more damage than the francisca, and they're better fighters than I. Considering the ridiculous levels of overkill some of my characters have experienced, only being reduced to 0 Constitution feels like getting off lightly. Nevertheless, it's the end for Blugen the Beaten, Battered, Bruised and Bloodstained. Perhaps I'd have fared better with a less rubbish character - at least as long as I could spend some of the money mentioned in the intro on decent equipment - but I suspect that I'd have needed a significantly superior character to have a real chance, and the likelihood of rolling up a sufficiently good one is pretty low.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Because I Have a Special Job

Completism above and beyond the call of sanity was the main reason that I got all of the F.E.A.R. Adventures by the pseudonymous Jak Shadow, but the fact that the penultimate one I acquired was the less-disappointing-than-the-rest The Spy Master may also have been a contributory factor. Like most of the others, I got it on eBay, and on my one previous attempt at it, I got some way into the book before making what I thought was a sensible decision, only to find that the author considered it a catastrophically stupid thing to do. A not uncommon occurrence in this series.

As I have explained before, the series has me as a child recruited (for painfully ridiculous reasons) by anti-terrorism organisation F.E.A.R. to try and thwart the schemes of time-travelling alien bad guy Triton. In this book, I'm being sent to London in 1999. F.E.A.R. suspect that Triton (using the pseudonym Gary Steel) has kidnapped inventor Albert Fudge, who was attempting to create a computer that could control every other computer on Earth (because that kind of thing always turns out so well), and intends to exploit the Millennium Bug (which is explained in a manner that's not likely to make any sense to anyone not already familiar with the concept) to take over the world.

An agent reports that Fudge has left a trail of clues to help F.E.A.R. find him and learn all five letters of the password to his master computer. Yes, just five letters. I had more securely protected email accounts by 1999. The trail begins on Abbey Road, in Studio 1, an address that means nothing to my Beatles-ignorant character.

I get to pick an item of equipment before being sent off. There are three from which to choose, but I can only have one, which makes no sense whatsoever. Two of them are very specific to this mission, which means there'd be no point in saving them for some other occasion, and as F.E.A.R. will use their time machine to drag me to safety the moment I appear to be in even the mildest of peril, it's not as if anything needs to be kept back in case something bad happens to me and someone else has to take over the mission. It's just a petty, pointless restriction thrown in to increase my chances of failing and needing to be rescued.

Still, rules are rules, so unless this limitation makes the book unplayable (and author Jon Sutherland does apparently have form in this regard), I should abide by it. I'll take the replica of Fudge's eyeball for bypassing retinal scan-based security systems. The laser watch is a bit generic, and while the disk of computer virus has an obvious use here, there are other ways of wrecking computers. Besides, the text makes such a big deal of how unpleasant the eyeball looks, it makes me suspect authorial shenanigans. Making one of the items essential and then attempting to dissuade the reader from choosing it would be a bit underhanded, but not the sneakiest thing I've ever seen in a gamebook.

The time machine is located in a basement that was not in use at the time to which I'm being sent back. This causes my character to become nervous at the prospect of encountering rats, though I suspect that this gamebook series is far too tame to allow anything like that to happen. Before entering the machine, I'm notified that a motopod has already been sent back in time for me. That's a kind of lightweight motorbike/bubble car hybrid with tinted glass windows (to hide the fact that the driver is way too young to have a license).

Arriving in 1999, I find that the basement is messy, smelly, and apparently illuminated in spite of being disused, because there's no mention of my having trouble seeing. Or of rats. Collecting the motopod, I ascend the stairs to the exit. It's jammed, and flimsy enough that I break it while forcing my way out. Leaving the building via a convenient fire exit, I use the motopod's onboard computer to find the way to the studio.

The book hasn't previously mentioned that the password I seek is made up of the first letters of the places I must visit (in this instance the road rather than the studio), but my character must have been informed of this minor detail between paragraphs. Unless it's supposed to be self-evident. Please post a comment to say if you realised the password had to start with 'A' as soon as I mentioned Abbey Road.

Concealing the motopod in a bush, and taking the remote control with me in case I can't get back to the bike, I enter the building. Asking the receptionist if there are any messages from Albert Fudge could draw unwelcome attention, so I look for studio 1 on my own. There's a cheap joke about opera sounding awful, and then I reach the studio, which has a note attached to the door: 'Gary Steel Do Not Disturb'. I'm not Gary Steel, so that means it's okay for me to disturb, right?

Maybe not. In the studio I see a multitude of computers, connected to a pod which contains Triton. Beside each computer is a mind-controlled-looking musician playing an instrument (Studio 1 must have much better soundproofing than the one with the opera singers in, as I didn't hear this lot at all). Triton orders the musicians to get me, and I figure that trying to fight my way through them in order to attack Triton would be an idiotic idea, so I hurry away.

Hiding in the bushes where I stowed the motopod, I watch as Triton boards a truck and is driven away. Returning to the studio, I find it abandoned, containing only a mass of cables. And a circle of chairs, each one with a star on it. In case this clue is a little too obscure, one of the chairs also has a leaflet stuffed into its side (which suggests that the chair depicted in the book is nothing like the ones in the studio). The leaflet is advertising the London Planetarium, and my character knows better than to ignore the 'London' in the place's name, thereby identifying 'L' as the second letter of the password.

Proceeding to the London Planetarium, I join a group of tourists. Inside, I take a seat in the front row, and while looking around, I spot Triton, who's attempting to disguise himself with an upturned collar. That's more effective than you might think - sure, I recognised him, but I was on the look-out for tell-tale hints. Little things the average member of the public would overlook. Like green skin.

The show starts normally, but then the voice-over cuts out, replaced by a high-pitched noise that begins putting people to sleep. While I'm still conscious, I make for the fire exit. Guards fire sleeping darts at me, but I dodge them. I don't loiter in search of clues, but sneak back in after a few minutes have passed. Whatever hint Fudge may have put here has gone, so the time machine is operated to bring me back to the present day. Oddly, the text implies that I'm being rescued from some imminent threat rather than just getting recalled because I've lost the trail.

Like the rest of the series, the book gives the option of turning back to section 1 and trying again, but I prefer to treat failure as failure. This attempt at it has drawn my attention to some absurdities that I either failed to notice last time or forgot about in the intervening years, but I'd still rate it above at least the preceding two. I can't remember a thing about the content of the last two books in the series, but given time, I might be reminded of why they failed to make much of an impression back when I got them.

Monday, 9 May 2016

I Had to Stop for the Night

This is the third part of my playthrough of Keith Martin's Revenge of the Vampire, which commenced here and continued here. Considering what happened on at least two previous occasions that I got this far through the book, it may well be the last part, too, but if I correctly remember the specifics of what got my character killed on those earlier attempts, the odds of my surviving it this time round should be in my favour. Only slightly - around 55%, assuming nothing bad occurs beforehand - but that's still a better chance than some gamebooks offer.

After several days on the road, I reach the village of Fendringham, which is just an hour's walk from Mortus Mansion. Which does leave me wondering why, if Harquar was supposed to be keeping an eye on the house, he was living in Farleigh rather than here. Maybe staying that close to the place would have been a bit too obvious, but judging by the assassination attempt from which I had to save him, the added distance didn't really make him any safer.

It's late afternoon when I arrive, so if I carry straight on to Heydrich's home, it'll be close to sundown by the time I get there, and wandering around a Vampire's lair during the hours of darkness is pretty much asking for a terminal bout of anaemia. Consequently, I'm willing to pay the price (in gold and Blood Points) to spend the night in the local tavern, the 'Rat and Bat'. The other patrons being neither intelligent nor fragrant, I soon turn in for the night.

Just as I'm about to drop off, I hear the floorboards outside creaking. The two hired thugs who subsequently burst into the room to attack me must be slow-witted even by local standards, as I have time to get out of bed, grab my sword, and put on my leather armour before they actually smash the door open. I manage to position myself in a spot where they can only attack one at a time, and kill the first man without any bother.

The second fight is less straightforward, even though both ruffians have identical stats. The thing is, the outcome of the fight varies depending on whether or not I bring his Stamina below 4 without actually killing him. As he starts with a Stamina of 7, killing him outright is not easy. Indeed, unless the book includes an opportunity to acquire a weapon that does extra damage prior to this fight, the only way to do it is to use Luck twice in the fight, being Unlucky the first time, and Lucky the second.

Unsurprisingly, I do not kill the second ruffian outright, and when I have hit him a couple of times, he drops his weapon, drops to his knees, and begs me not to kill him. This is a trickier decision than you might think. One the one hand, I know that killing an unarmed opponent who's just surrendered is the sort of action that can lead to a Faith penalty. On the other hand, I know that sparing his life will lead to the situation that's already brought more than one of my previous attempts at the book to a premature end. And on the Beeblebrox hand, taking the risk of letting the man live (albeit briefly) provides a lead that might be useful or even essential, and I'm not aware of any other way of acquiring that information.

I don't kill the grovelling thug. He tells me that a huge brute with a hideously scarred face came to Fendringham last night, told him and his companion of my approach, and paid the two of them to get rid of me. Then, acting like a man possessed, he grabs a poisoned knife from a concealed sheath and stabs me in the stomach with it. To survive this attack, I need to roll no higher than my Stamina score on four dice. Given the damage from the blow, that means I have to get 14 or less. Regrettably, the total of the four dice is slightly higher than the total of the five dice I had to roll back when I created this character, which means that yet another of my Revenge characters has succumbed to the venom on the blade.

Monday, 25 April 2016

And That's Cutting Me Own Throat

This is the second part of my playthrough of Fighting Fantasy book 58, Keith Martin's Revenge of the Vampire. Anyone who hasn't yet read the first part, or wants to refresh their memory about what happened in it, can find it here.

As I rather pathetically attempt to pursue Heydrich's coach on foot, I encounter a farmer leading a horse. He's willing to sell it to me in return for all my gold (so long as that's above a certain value). There are two common complaints about this encounter in FF fandom, one valid, the other one (as far as I can tell) missing the point. I'll address the valid objection in the next paragraph, once I've pulled apart the one I don't accept, which boils down to: the farmer should charge a fixed price for the horse because exploiting the situation to wring as much money as possible out of the hero is unreasonable. I agree that it's unreasonable, but so what? You get unreasonable people. Pretty much any time of emergency will be taken by some as an opportunity to rip off the needy and desperate. But it would appear that, to certain fans, while it's okay for gamebooks to feature encounters with the likes of thieves, traitors, slavers, torturers, murderers and genocidal maniacs, opportunists are just unacceptable.

The more reasonable complaint is that the situation leads to one of the book's more serious errors. Probably the worst one in the slightly fixed second print run. The thing is, there are several sections that can only be reached if you buy the horse and subsequently spend another gold piece. But since buying the horse uses up all the player character's gold, there's no way of getting to those sections and picking up the important item which can only be acquired in that sequence. My preferred fix for this bug is an optional Test your Luck to palm a coin when paying the farmer, which makes it possible to pay the additional charge when required, but doesn't eliminate the farmer's short-sighted greed.

So, I buy the horse and successfully retain one gold piece while begrudgingly handing over the rest. The horse makes good time, and after a while I encounter a broken-down coach and learn from its driver that the coach I'm pursuing passed him not long before. Towards dawn, the horse begins to tire, and I catch sight of a coaching inn. Heydrich's coach is being pushed into the stables even as I approach. When I ask the landlord about recent arrivals, he claims that I'm the first this morning, but he has the look of a man who's been hypnotised into forgetting something, so his denial doesn't dissuade me from booking in (for 1 gold, payable in advance).

Though tired, I choose to have a look around before turning in. A chambermaid is fetching linen from a cupboard, so I ask her if she's been warned not to enter any rooms. She mentions the adulterous liaison going on in room five, and is about to mention another room when she goes blank. Not wanting to risk causing mental damage by pushing her too hard, I say no more, but watch her doing her rounds. She takes fresh bedding to all but room five and the room at the end of the corridor, and once she's finished her rounds, I investigate the second of those rooms.

That's 'investigate' as in 'kick the door in'. Crude, but effective. The room is in darkness, but light spilling in from the corridor illuminates the occupied coffin on the bed. And its armed guard Igor, who promptly attacks me. He's tough, and on one of the two occasions he manages to hit me, he does extra damage, but I significantly outclass him, and win without any real trouble. Part of his fighting prowess turns out to be a consequence of his owning a magic sword, which I claim as spoils of battle, along with his gold, a ring, and Sewarth's Codex. For bookkeeping purposes I need to make a note of the number of moonstones set into the ring and pages in the Codex, but the text does at least warn me to do so. Strangely, the Codex has an odd number of pages. Maybe Sewarth only used and numbered one side of each sheet of paper. Unless one of the pages is a moebius strip for some arcane reason...

Fighting Fantasy is a little inconsistent regarding Vampires' vulnerabilities, but in Keith Martin's books, only certain types of weapon can harm them. A magic sword would do, so I take the one I've just acquired, and plunge it into the recumbent Heydrich's chest. The wound heals as soon as I pull the sword out, and the Vampire's grin gets smugger. Exposure to sunlight and decapitation prove equally ineffective, confirming that the gem Sewarth was researching has made Heydrich invulnerable. Still, his coffin has no such protection, and smashing that provides several Blood Points.

Reasoning that the Codex should provide some hints about how to restore the Count's killability, I take it to my room for a good read. Alas, what with having spent the night snooping around a monastery, fighting assorted minions of the Vampire, searching in catacombs, and riding in pursuit of a coach, I'm too tired to give the text the attention it requires, and doze off before I can take in anything of note.

I sleep through most of the daylight hours, and when I wake and discover how late it is, I realise that Heydrich will be on his way again soon. Hurrying to the stables, I find that I'm just too late: as I draw near, a dark horse gallops out, a cloaked figure on its back. Oh, well, at least I forced the Count to abandon his coach by depriving him of his driver.

I'm not really going to be able to continue my pursuit of him, either, as a couple of stablemen block access to my horse, demanding payment for having fed him, and I can see that he's eaten too well to be capable of the sort of speed that would be required to stay on the Vampire's trail. Mind you, it may still be useful to have a horse, and I can't justify attacking the stablemen just for overfeeding him without permission, so I suppose I shall have to pay up.

I ride after the Count, but the horse cannot keep up. At dawn I stop for breakfast, and have another go at reading the Codex. It tells me that Heydrich's current lair is a mansion to the east, that the Soul Gem is in the possession of the three witches who crafted it, and that the Count is planning to go to an unspecified location to raise an army of Vampires in his service. Maps indicate the approximate location of the mansion and the home of the witches.

I decide to visit the mansion first. It won't be possible for me to kill Heydrich there, because of that gem, but I'm pretty sure that even if I were to deal with the witches and the gem first, the Count would still survive my calling on him at home, because dramatic necessity requires that he not be defeated until on the verge of succeeding in his army-raising scheme.

Slightly carelessly, the text has me ask people if they've seen Heydrich's coach, in spite of the fact that he had to leave it back at that inn. Occasional reports of sightings suggest that I am still on the trail he followed. Being on horseback helps me maintain a decent pace, significantly reducing the number of compulsory meals I have to eat along the way. After a while I reach a hamlet, where I can buy more provisions, and while I'm there, I ask if there are any scholars or magicians in the area. Nobody will tell me anything without payment, but after I part with a little cash, the villagers mention an eccentric healer named Zandar or Sender or something along those lines who lives on the outskirts of the hamlet. While not currently in need of medical assistance, I decide to check him out, remembering that there was a monk named Sandar who disappeared from the monastery at the same time as Sewarth.

There's a dilapidated stable in the grounds of the healer's house, and I take a quick look in it. Heydrich's coach is not inside (which is hardly surprising), but there is something undead in there. Not a particularly formidable opponent, and I quickly kill it before continuing on my way to the house.

I knock on the door, and a tall, grey-haired man lets me in. We go to his study, where he pours a couple of glasses of wine and I ask about his work. He talks of his interest in philosophy and life after death, and then lunges at me, yelling about how fascinating he finds the subject of spirit possession. I catch sight of a glowing amulet around his neck, and he produces a poisoned dagger and attacks me. Rather than fight back, I try to get the amulet away from him, and on my second attempt I succeed. It's hot, and burns my hand, but I see sanity returning to his gaze. Then two Zombies burst into the room and attack. After a couple of rounds, the man has sufficiently regained his senses to be able to assist me, and we rapidly prevail.

Sandar (for it is he) is pretty traumatised by what's been going on, and has no memory of the events of the past three weeks, nor of anything he might once have known about Heydrich, nor even what else is in the house. I decide to find out the latter for him. Behind the door through which the Zombies came I find a corridor. Two further doors lead from it, and I also find a secret door, leading to a room that has an evil atmosphere and contains another of Heydrich's coffins. A Death Imp appears and attacks when I enter the room, but I kill it with ease, and smash the coffin.

Returning to the corridor, I try one of the other doors. It's locked, but I smash it down without any trouble. The room beyond is being used as a laboratory, and in addition to the standard paraphernalia, there's a corpse strapped to a table, exhaling a foggy vapour. Despite this disconcerting sight, I give the place a quick search, helping myself to pots of resin and acid. As Luck would have it, nothing unpleasant occurs.

The other door is also locked, and even easier to force. It leads to a finely decorated bedroom, which appears to have been used by the Count himself. I help myself to the four-poster bed's gold tassels and a flask of medicinal brandy, but find nothing else of note. The other wing of the house contains a less ornate bedroom and the kitchen, so I stock up on Provisions before leaving.

As I accompany Sandar to the hamlet, he has a sudden flash of memory. Heydrich had been talking to a servant, and mentioned the mountain where the witches live. There was something there (perhaps the gem) that he wanted back in time. That's probably as in 'he wished it returned to his possession by a specific deadline' rather than 'he intended to use trans-temporal shenanigans to send it into the past', but based on things that happened in a couple of earlier FF titles, the latter is not beyond the bounds of possibility.

I'm pretty sure that despite what Sandar's just said, there's no real time limit for dealing with the witches, and it's possible that if I do head off to their territory now, I won't get the chance to come back this way and investigate the mansion, so I carry on to where I was heading. The weather takes a turn for the worse, and a couple of Giant Ravens attack me, but I ensure that they will nevermore harass travellers on this road.

I continue on my way, and towards the end of the day I notice that the road is getting foggy up ahead. Only the road: the forest to either side of it is not remotely misty. Weird. Walking into the mist may not be fatal, as this book wasn't written by Robin Waterfield or M.W. Bolton, but I'd rather not take the risk anyway. Now, which side of the road did I go onto the last time I got to this point?

The same one that I chose today. No idea what happens on the other side, and maybe I should check it out at some point, but so far I have no reason to believe that I'm better off avoiding this encounter. Investigating sounds of yelling and snarling, I reach a clearing in which a fight has taken place. The bodies of three wolves and a fighter lie on the ground, and two live wolves are menacing a man who's obviously not a fighter, though he is waving around a knife in a less than intimidating manner.

I wave around my sword in a lethal manner, and the wolves join the three that died before I arrived. The man thanks me for saving him, introducing himself as Roban, a travelling merchant. He asks me to help bury his bodyguard and accompany him to the nearby village of Farleigh, and offers to pay for my assistance. I accede to his request, thereby gaining a Faith bonus but losing a point of Blood for the delay. Faith is scarcer than Blood, so it's probably worth it.

The text is a little vaguer than ideal here, but I think I have to sell my horse once I reach Farleigh, because its exertions have taken their toll on it. Naturally I don't get as much as I paid for it. Still, it's not all bad news here. Roban pays for me to have a room at the best inn and, the next day, gives me some money and food. He asks if there's anything else he can do to help, and when I give a vague account of my adventures to date, he mentions a scholar who lives locally but formerly studied at Lake Libra. Slightly annoyingly, unless I head straight to the tavern this scholar frequents, I'll forget this information and be forced to waste time (and Blood) relearning it, but if I do go directly, I don't get to buy anything in the market.

The tavern is an up-market place, and I have to bribe the bouncer to let me in. Harquar, the scholar, is an unimpressive figure, who seems to know nothing of any use, but his demeanour changes when I mention the massacre at the monastery, and he tells me to visit him tomorrow, giving directions to his house. Unwilling to waste another night in this village, I follow him home from the tavern. He has a bodyguard large enough to put me off the idea of forcing my way into the house, but some caprice prompts me to loiter in the vicinity rather than just getting a room for the night.

Lamplight shows from a window, and I see the mist by that window coalescing into the shape of some tentacled creature, which dissolves the window and slithers through. I climb the wall, fortunately not inconvenienced by having missed out on getting a rope at the market, and enter the room to find Harquar in bed, his face covered by the Vampiric Jelly. I slice the thing up before it can suffocate him, and then send his useless bodyguard to fetch a healer.

Once a couple of herbal restoratives have restored Harquar's health, I tell him everything relevant that's happened since I met Henrik. It turns out that Sewarth arranged for Harquar to move here to keep an eye on Heydrich's mansion. The place was already haunted after an insane nobleman murdered his family there, so the locals have assumed any peculiar happenings to be caused by the ghosts, rather than suspecting the new owner of being up to something. The mansion's reputation has also made it difficult for Harquar to recruit any local help, so he knows next to nothing about the Count's activities.

One thing he does know is that the Soul Gem is a crystal heart. If I hadn't already know the witches' whereabouts, I'd learn it now, and Harquar also warns me to try and deal with the witches one at a time rather than as a group. He also suspects that Heydrich has some concealed source of power, and is only working with the witches until he's in a position to draw on it.

Before I resume my journey to Heydrich's house, which Harquar reveals to be called Mortus Mansion, the scholar gives me a bundle of letters that circulated between him, Sewarth and Henrik, as they may contain some useful information. He also announces his intent to go somewhere else before the next assassination attempt.

I'll end this instalment here, partly because it's already been a fortnight since my previous post, and partly to set up a 'save point'. I don't think I've done anything catastrophically wrong yet, and I know from at least two past failures at this book that there's a potentially lethal encounter not far off. If my next post turns out to be a short one, I will at least have the option of restarting from here rather than having to repeat most of what I've been doing up until now.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Blood Is a Special Substance

Keith Martin's final Fighting Fantasy gamebook, Revenge of the Vampire (sequel to his second FF book, Vault of the Vampire), is like several previous FF books in that I came across a second-hand copy a while before getting back into gamebooks, looked at it in the shop, and was not inspired to buy at that time. This one I originally found in the long-since-closed Mind charity shop on Savile Street. I don't particularly regret having passed up the opportunity to get it at that point, because I've been rather lucky as regards RotV since then.

For starters, Revenge was the book I bought at the same time as Magehunter in a charity shop I only got to visit once before it went out of business. A while after that, a copy in significantly better condition turned up in the no-longer-extant Oxfam bookshop at the corner of South Street and Carr Lane. Though the price was almost five times that of the one I'd already bought, I was by then aware of the scarcity of the book, so I bought that one, too.

Before long, I parted with the more battered of those copies in a trade with another FF fan. Then, a little later, I bought yet another copy for less than half of what my first one had cost (though, bucking the trend, the place where I found that one wasn't a charity shop and hasn't since closed down - Hull still has its Central Library, even if its stock of books isn't what it was). That one I sold on eBay, with a very reasonable starting price, and it ended up going for about ten times the total amount I'd spent on copies of Revenge of the Vampire.

A little while after that, I became friends with another fan who didn't have Revenge in his collection, so when an eBay search turned up a copy with a decent Buy It Now price, I snapped it up on his behalf. By now I imagine that some of the readers are cursing my name for having got the book so often while they've never even seen one 'in the paper', so it's probably a good thing that my reminiscences about finding inexpensive copies of RotV end here.

One of those copies had a handwritten message on the first page, revealing the book to have originally been an engagement gift from fiancée to fiancé. Finding writing in an old gamebook is never a good thing, but that was a particularly sad instance. I have no idea what circumstances led to the book's winding up on sale where I found it, but I can't imagine them being anything cheery.

Some of the copies that passed through my hands were from different print runs, as a result of which I was able to discover that one of the book's many errors (it's probably the worst-afflicted of all the FF books hit by the decline in proofreading and playtesting towards the end of the run) was fixed for the second edition. Only one, though. Better than none, I guess, and it was one of the more serious mistakes, but it's odd that, as Puffin went to the effort of redoing the typesetting to correct that blunder, they left all the other flaws as they were.

My previous online playthrough of the book is another of the handful that were saved from e-blivion by the Wayback Machine. Not a particularly successful attempt, nor a very informative write-up, but it's here in case anyone thinks reading about my character's rapid and gruesome demise will improve their mood.

So, an unspecified number of years after a luckier or more valiant warrior than my last character in Vault succeeded in staking the eponymous Vampire, a completely new adventurer is in a tavern near the quiet town of Gummport, lamenting the lack of opportunities to be heroic. The landlord's son assists a blind man to a seat and, observing a couple of the more shifty patrons taking an interest in the new arrival, my character silently warns them off and joins the blind man.

 The man introduces himself as Henrik van der Termlen, a scholar on his way to meet an old friend named Sewarth at one of the local universities. I ask why he's travelling alone in this potentially hazardous region, and he tells me that a couple of nights ago his travelling companion Otto was poisoned by an enemy who means to keep Henrik from reaching his destination. Suppressing my suspicions that he might be a bit paranoid, I offer to accompany Henrik the rest of the way, and he accepts. It's getting late, so we head to our respective rooms for the night.

It would appear that Henrik is not an early riser. After breakfast I go to his room to wake him, and find that somebody has fatally stabbed him during the night. Backing away from the corpse, I stumble over a box jutting from under the bed, spilling its contents onto the floor. There's money in there (so the killing wasn't a robbery gone bad), and papers, which turn out to be copies of letters that Henrik (who, post-mortem, is intermittently referred to as 'Henrick' in one of the more trivial of the book's editing blunders) had sent to Sewarth. This correspondence indicates that Henrik had been on the trail of the Mortvanian Vampire Count Reiner Heydrich, who stored some of his essence in a magical container to ensure that he'd be able to come back if anyone managed to kill him, and wanted Sewarth to research the Soul Jewel used by Heydrich.

Having failed to protect Henrik, I resolve to take his notes to Sewarth in the hope that doing so will help bring about Heydrich's downfall. It would appear that I don't see myself as a prospective Vampire hunter, despite having been raring to go adventuring mere hours before. Maybe it's because of my stats - let's see what they are...
Skill 12
Stamina 16
Luck 11
Faith 6
Not that bad (though they'd have been less impressive if I hadn't allocated dice). There's also a non-randomised attribute to keep track of time wasted, progress made in interfering with Heydrich's plans, and so on. It's called Blood, and starts at 10, but it can go into negative figures if I make a real mess of things.

My first decision, which comes at the end of the Background rather than in section 1, is whether to take Henrik's money or just the papers. Being short of funds can lead to trouble in this adventure (not least because of one of the book's more infamous flaws), and if I leave the money, it'll just be pilfered by someone for less worthy reasons, so I take it. My hurried departure attracts no attention, and I'm soon on my way to Lake Libra, where the monastery in which Sewarth lives is situated.

There's not just the one monastery by the lake, though, and finding the correct one could take time. Or I could make a small donation to the coffers at the Hamaskian Monastery, and they'll tell me the right one. I take the latter option, and get directed to the Halls of the Stars, a monastery with a reputation for housing eccentrics who carry out particularly obscure studies. The young monk who opens the door when I knock seems reluctant to let me in, but when I speak of the papers that must be delivered to Sewarth, he fetches two senior monks.

The older of the two introduces himself as Endrell and his companion as Marcus, and explains that Sewarth is away, as is the fourth Elder, Sandar, but Sewarth should be back soon. He asks to see the papers, and I let him have a look. After a brief scrutiny of some papers, and a closer look at others, he says they don't mean much to him, and I'd be advised to wait for Sewarth. Marcus also wants to see the papers, but Endrell declines to show them to him, and I get the impression that there's something in them that he doesn't want the younger monk to see.

I am shown to a sparsely furnished room and given an unappetising meal. Sleep eludes me during the night, so I decide to do some investigating. A discreet visit to Endrell might help determine whether he has something to hide, or he harbours suspicions about Marcus. There's no reply when I knock at his door, but it's not locked, so I take a look inside and find the room unoccupied, the bed showing no signs of use. A quick search of the room turns up a wooden chest under the bed. It's locked, but not difficult to force open, and inside I find some books, including a heavily annotated copy of A History of Mortvania: Vol. 8. Endrell definitely knows more than he's letting on.

The sound of footsteps in the corridor outside keeps me from taking a closer look at what's been written in the book, and I decide that it's too soon for a confrontation, and risk hiding in the wardrobe. Luckily, I remember to hide the obvious traces of my intrusion before doing so, and Endrell fails to spot anything amiss when he returns to the room. Once he's asleep, I sneak back out, and decide to see if I can find out anything from Marcus.

When I knock on the door to Marcus' room, just across the corridor, I hear a bolt being drawn, and then the door is opened just wide enough for Marcus to see who I am. He looks frightened, but lets me in when I say that I'm concerned about Sewarth. Handling the subsequent conversation can be tricky, because it's one of the places where the book's anti-cheating mechanisms go too far. I'm all right, as I only need to be able to remember the number in the title of the book that caught my attention in Endrell's room to be able to talk about it, but the incidental detail I'd have had to memorise if Endrell had found me hiding is at least as obscure as a price tag.

According to Marcus, neither of the absent monks said anything to him about leaving - Endrell told him after they were gone. I mention the book I found, and Marcus reveals that Endrell often leaves his room at night, and he (Marcus) has spotted strange shapes flitting about after dark. He suggests checking out the library or Sewarth's room, and gives me directions to both.

I decide to start with Sewarth's room. The door is locked, but the lock is crude enough that I can pick it with my knife. Inside, I find that the furniture has been covered with drapes, and the bookcases and chests are padlocked. Not really the state in which I'd expect to find the room of someone whose return is imminent. I risk taking the time for a proper search. This costs me 1 Blood, and turns up almost nothing, but I do eventually find a hastily-scrawled note which indicates that Sewarth suspected the monastery had been infiltrated, and has concealed copies of his findings somewhere down below. Evidently everything else he's written has been removed and/or destroyed.

There are six doors in this wing of the monastery. I've been through three, and know where a fourth leads. However, from past attempts at the book, I also know that it'll be worth my while to check out one of the other doors before entering the library. Now, which one was it...? The one I try first, which is convenient. It contains a large number of ledgers and scrolls, one of which contains records of library usage, revealing that both Sewarth and Endrell have taken out lots of books on Mortvania and the undead recently. I also find a little money, which I pocket.

Time to have a look in the library. It has a domed balcony (and, of course, lots of shelves of books). I start to search - not sure what for, but I'm confident I'll know it when I see it. Or perhaps when I don't: several books in the library's small section on the undead are conspicuous by their absence. I ascend to the dome to contemplate this, and realise that the glass of the dome has been designed to magnify the view of the night sky. This makes it all the easier for me to spot the bat-like shape that flies in from the east and glides down to the ground by the west wing of the monastery. That merits further investigation.

Proceeding to the west wing, I find three doors: two leading north, the other south. One of the north doors is a waste of time (and Blood), while the other leads to the conclusion of the sequence set in the monastery. As I don't remember which is which, I'll risk trying the south one first. As I approach it, I hear a groaning noise, and then a terrified-looking monk bursts through the door and heads for the exit. The passage beyond the door leads to many monks' cells, some of them with doors gaping, and a trail of blood leads down it. I wouldn't be much of a hero if I didn't investigate, would I?

The trail leads to the corpse of a young monk. Hearing screams from further ahead, I rush on in the hope of saving whoever is in trouble, but by the time I reach the source, he's already been killed by an undead monstrosity in a habit, which promptly turns on me. I manage to kill it without taking any damage (good thing, too, as I might have caught something nasty if the Ghoul-Monk had got its dirty fingernails into me). There's one monk still alive, too traumatised to speak, but he points to the north. Regrettably, the tell-tale 'if you have not tried it already' that would have been appended to the dud north door if I'd been too chicken to follow the blood trail isn't present here, so I'm just going to have to rely on patchy memories and half-guess.

I'm right again. The door I pick leads to the kitchens, and there’s an open trapdoor in the floor, from which emanates a smell of decay. I descend the stone steps below, and encounter a potentially confusing ambiguity: the text asks if I’ve slain a monk. I know from past attempts at the book that the question is designed to ascertain whether or not I got into a fight with Endrell in his room, but it would not be completely unreasonable for a player to think that the question refers to the Ghoul-Monk (what with the ‘Monk’ in its designation) and miss out on a confrontation with Heydrich’s lackey.

Anyway, I have yet to slay a regular monk in this attempt at the book, so as I reach the lower level, I hear Endrell muttering to himself about how he'll have to leave and join his Master now that 'he' (presumably the Ghoul-Monk) has escaped and killed. He falls silent as he approaches the steps, and the book gets misleading. I have the choice of challenging him or attacking him, but from my first failed attempt at the book, I know that it's using the word 'challenge' to mean 'make up a weak excuse for being down here and let Endrell trick me into downing a poisoned nightcap', which must come as something of a disappointment to any reader who was hoping to interrogate the treacherous monk.

So I take the course of action that won't lead to my death, and pretty soon I have slain a monk after all. The corridor along which Endrell came leads to a maze of catacombs, and searching for Sewarth's hidden notes takes some time. When I do find them, they're something of a disappointment (though the scraps of knowledge they contain are worth as many Blood Points as I lost in the search). They tell me only that:
  1. Sewarth knew that one of his fellows had succumbed to Heydrich's influence, but not which one.
  2. Heydrich will be invulnerable as long as his Soul Gem remains hidden.
  3. Further information is in Sewarth's Codex, which he has hidden somewhere.
  4. Heydrich has made his home somewhere to the north-east (the map showing where is illegibly smudged).
My study of these notes is interrupted by a revelation concerning the bat-like shape that originally drew my attention to the west wing of the monastery: it's a huge vampire bat with horns, red eyes, and long claws, which is doing its best to swoop at me in the narrow passageway. I clip its wings.

Coming to the conclusion that I've found out everything useful I'm going to learn here, I get ready to leave. On the way out of the catacombs, I spot some money at the feet of one of the long-dead monks. Taking it will cost me a point of Faith, as that constitutes desecration, but not taking it could cost me more, as without it I don't have quite enough gold to get to one of the book's more serious bugs.

Back at ground level, I discover that the front doors to the monastery are now open, and there's a dead monk (possibly the one I saved from the Ghoul-Monk) in the doorway leading south. Horses whinny outside, and I rush out to see a caped figure climbing into a black coach with four black stallions. What with Heydrich's 'invulnerable until the Soul Gem is found' factor, attacking him isn't massively clever, but I try anyway. He grabs my sword by the blade and smacks me in the head with the pommel, but my reckless courage does restore the Faith I lost by tomb-robbing.

As I sprawl dazed on the ground, the coach departs, and now seems as good a time as any to utter the incantation 'End of part one' and pause the narrative. This is going to be a busy week, as I have to fill in for someone who's ill, so it may be a few days before the next instalment.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

The One Who's Gonna Suffer

Proteus issue 15 was another one acquired on the way to school. When I got it, the 'Extra Special Christmas Adventure' it contained got more of my attention than the main feature, M.W. Bolton's The Havarine Madness. Funnily enough, this was because I expected the bonus adventure to be bad, and was curious as to how awful it could be. As it turned out, the Christmas adventure was pretty decent, and quite fun. It wasn't until I finally got around to having a proper go at THM that I discovered the issue did contain an appalling shambles of an adventure, just not the one I'd expected.

The premise isn't overly unpromising. The adventure starts quite generically, as I'm in a tavern in order to meet the unknown individual from the Royal Household of Garrangar who has requested my assistance in an unspecified quest. Not that we stay there for long: the actual mission briefing takes place on a nearby hill. Apparently this was once a happy place, but then the Havarines came along, bringing with them an infectious madness that has turned the king into a deranged tyrant. Just after I'm told of this, another sufferer of the madness bursts from the tavern, trying to fight off some horror that only exists in his mind.

The only hope for a cure lies with the wise-man Zermahaar, who owns a curative potion and a talisman that could rid the land of the Havarines. Well, my contact calls the latter item a talisman, but then states that it's called The Sword of Ruin, which suggests that it's more of a magical weapon than a talisman. Unless the name is figurative. Or it's something ornamental in the shape of a sword. Zermahaar lives in the castle of Adonerath, which is almost unreachable owing to the Haverine-created monsters and traps that surround it. And he's a bit mad himself, overly fond of puzzles, liable to demand something of value in return for the potion and Sword, and prone to doing terrible things to those who bring gifts that do not meet his standards.

When I agree to try and get the potion and Sword, my contact ditches the cloak they've been wearing, revealing that my employer is none other than the queen. She warns me that many adventurers have already attempted this quest and failed, and now the madness has afflicted so many that nobody from the region can be trusted. She gives me some gold and a pack containing provisions, rope and a sword (what kind of adventurer am I to not have any of this stuff already?), and declares that I must return with the items from Zermahaar by sunset tomorrow.

I will definitely be allocating dice at character creation, thereby getting an in-with-a-chance:
Dexterity 11
Strength 19
No other stats. Not even a non-randomised one for keeping track of the passage of time, so that 'by sunset' deadline has no impact on the outcome, despite the multitude of opportunities the adventure offers to waste time on false trails.

I will also be using the map I made when repeatedly playing THM for review purposes last decade. It's been long enough since I last endured this adventure that even using the map is no guarantee of following the right path, but it should at least enable me to avoid several near-identical arbitrary Instant Deaths, as well as sparing me the consequences of a particularly atrocious bit of gamebook design about which I shall rant at the appropriate moment, should I survive that long.

Anyway, I set off north along the road, eventually reaching a junction, at which I take the turning that will not guarantee failure. The path leads to another junction, and I keep going in the same direction, because turning north leads to a choice between getting lost in the mist and falling to my death in a chasm, and plummeting to my doom in the exact same chasm as a consequence of getting lost in the mist.

Further along, I see two horses tied up at a rail, both equipped with saddle and bridle. One is white, the other black, and I have no recollection of this incident whatsoever, so I ignore both and walk on. It's a hot day, and the long trek is a little uncomfortable, but I suffer no adverse effects from being on foot rather than on horseback. Some time later I reach another junction, and risk not going north again, but I do turn north at the next junction. This leads to a fight with an insane Ogre with manacles on his wrists, after which the path joins up with the previous turning to the north. So I might as well have taken that one, but I thought the Ogre might have had some treasure on him. Still, I took no damage in the fight, so the unnecessary detour didn't cost me anything.

The road passes a cottage, with a man standing outside. He invites me to peruse the items of potential interest inside, and I decide to see what he has on offer. Only one of the curios on offer catches my attention: a silver chalice with strange markings. The man tells me it was made by the Elvins of the Korowan valley, and offers it to me for 3 gold. Is this the item that will placate Zermahaar? I pay up in case, but something I do remember from winning before immediately indicates that this isn't what I'm after. Well, that would have been a bit easy. I'll just have to hope that my remaining gold is enough to cover any purchases that actually matter.

There's a side road by the cottage, which I ignore. Continuing north, I reach another junction, and as I'm contemplating which way to go, I get a slightly clumsy transition to a new section. There, a concealed archer fires an arrow at me, but misses. I take cover behind a tree, and the archer steps out into the road, drawing a sword. This is one of the tougher fights in the book, and I take significant damage in spite of my high Dexterity. More than I inflict, in fact, but as my Strength was almost twice that of the Archer, I'm the one still standing at the end of the fight. There's no loot to be had here, either: as far as I can tell, the only purpose this fight serves (other than killing off most characters with a below-average Dexterity) is to provide a distraction from the junction, so readers might not notice that they've been denied the opportunity to choose a direction.

Staggering north, I reach another junction. This time there's actually a little description of the ways I can go from here: west to a forest clearing, or east up a hill. I check out the clearing, and find a remarkably ugly old woman gathering herbs. She offers me some 'for strength', and I accept. They smell and taste bad, but do restore some of the Strength I lost in that fight, so this was a more productive detour than the one with the Ogre.

There being no other paths leading from the clearing, I go back to the junction and up the hill. From the top, a path runs further east along a cliff edge, and another winds north down to a riverside beach with a boat on it. I think the fight to be had in the east is another waste of time, so I head north.

As I approach the boat, I round an outcrop of rock, and find the remains of a long-dead man. The bones of his right hand still clutch a jewelled dagger, and his left hand appears to be reaching for something. A cursory dig in the area towards which the deceased was grasping turns up a golden collar. I may, if I so choose, take either the dagger or the collar, but not both. No explanation is given for why I can only have one of them, but the same thing happens whenever there's a choice of items to take, so I'm going to assume that adventuring is a tightly regulated profession here, and there are strict limits on the acquisition of treasure.

I take the item I think might be the essential one, and I'm right. It gives me a nasty sensation of pins and needles when I pick it up, but provides a significant boost to my Strength. Dropping it into my pack, I continue towards the boat. I row across the river with some difficulty, as the tide is not in my favour, and as I disembark from the boat, I am promptly mistaken for Mungo and attacked by a Giant Crab. Thinking ahead to the endgame, I will observe that the accompanying illustration reveals the Crab to have eight legs. Which a friend of mine who did a degree in Marine Biology confirmed to be the correct number (unless you count the claws, but apparently there is or was some disagreement over whether or not they constitute legs).

Though the Crab is as adept a fighter as the Archer, and has a slightly higher Strength, the dice favour me a little more in this fight, and I take less damage. There's nothing of value on this beach, so after a short rest, I scale the cliff ahead of me. From the beach it appeared to be a difficult climb, but I get to the top without having to roll dice or suffer any Strength loss, so it can't be that tricky.

At the top, paths run north and east. I'm not sure why, as both lead to the same fishing port and the same choices, leading to the same section numbers. For what it's worth, I take the path east. The coast is on the west of the port, and a little distance offshore is an island. There are also further paths north and east. Still, that island may be worth checking out before I go anywhere else, so I shall look into chartering a boat.

A weather-beaten old salt offers to transport me in his 'tidy craft' for two thirds of my remaining gold. His vessel turns out to be a rather unimpressive fishing boat, but it is at least seaworthy. As we set out across the bay, I notice that a few of the crew are becoming anxious. They're staring with some concern at a rock jutting from the water some way to the west. A rock that gets larger, and draws nearer, being joined by more of its kind as it approaches. Not entirely unsurprisingly, these rocks turn out to be parts of a mostly submerged monster, which becomes significantly less submerged once it catches up to the boat. It seizes one of the crew in its jaws, and I attack it. Some poor rolls early on cause me to take a little damage, but I prevail in the end, and the remains of the monster submerge for good.

The crew congratulate me, but I don't get any of my fare refunded for saving one of their number. We continue to the island, and I'm taken ashore in a dinghy. Up close, the island proves something of a disappointment, as I can see only rock and seabirds. And sand, in which a rusty metal box is half buried. And, after I smash the box open, an old man in a tattered robe, who calls me a thief. Though he does subsequently tell me that I may take one of the items in the box, which holds a rusty key and a bottle of liquid. The man says that the nectar in the bottle has restorative properties, but I still have food to restore Strength, whereas I don't have anything that could substitute for a key if I need one.

Thanking the man, I take the dinghy back to the boat, and we head back to the mainland. Again the crew look worried, this time because of approaching clouds. We don't reach land before the storm hits. A freak wave sweeps the deck clear of equipment, and the mast begins to crack. I still have the rope the queen gave me, though, and the crew are able to use it to effect a temporary repair, saving me from ending up like an unlucky Lone Wolf.

Back on dry land, I can take either of the paths that don't lead back to the top of the cliff. I had been intending to ignore the one that my map indicates to be a dead end, but the '(if you have not been that way before)' restriction makes me wonder if it might be worth a visit after all. I follow the road as it meanders along, eventually reaching the point where a landslide has blocked it, and as I turn to retrace my steps, a Scaly Rock Clinger leaps to the attack. It won't be doing any more leaping. And there's no loot after all. If I could meet myself from 12 years ago, I'd have a few things to say about listing items as well as encounters on the map.

Returning to the port, I take the other road that's open to me. It leads over a hill, and then changes direction, skirting a sinister-looking forest. From somewhere in the trees come howls and cries, drawing nearer until the source of the sounds bursts onto the road to attack. This is the Kraskar, a six-armed biped, wielding a spiked club in each hand, and I think it's the toughest necessary fight in the book. No treasure, as usual, but at least one of the items I've acquired prior to this point is essential for success, and there's no route from where I acquired that to the castle of Adonerath that bypasses the Kraskar. As against the Giant Crab, I get lucky, and take significantly less damage in the fight than I did against the Archer.

The path continues to another cliff edge, and the only way across the gorge that blocks my way is a rope bridge that has seen better days. I cross with care, and as I near the far side, a sneering youth with a sword emerges from the trees and demands a toll. I don't think I can afford to pay. That is, I have enough money, but I think I might need to buy something later on, and I doubt that what I'd have left after paying the toll will cover that purchase. So I guess I'll have to fight.

Despite having offered fighting as an option, the youth cuts the last remaining rope of the bridge before I can reach solid ground, causing me to plummet to my death. Well, he's not going to be able to extort money from anybody else for crossing his rotten bridge.

So, on this occasion I didn't get far enough to highlight the worst aspects of this adventure. That's a rant for another post, then. And at least I've reminded myself of a few detours I can safely avoid next time round.