Friday, 19 October 2012

All in a Sea of Wonders

J.H. Brennan's Horror Classic series has a title which is accurate yet potentially misleading: while the books are inspired by recognised classics of the horror genre (and at times indicate far greater familiarity with the source material than the majority of the derivative works on screen and stage), they also contain a great deal of the absurd and quirky humour that made me a big fan of Brennan's Grail Quest  books. It was the comical aspect that inspired me to get the books for myself (but I'll say more about that when I get to the second book in the series, as it was that one that led to my realisation that these books were a return to the inspired lunacy of Grail Quest, rather than the turgid complexity of Brennan's second gamebook series).

The series commences (if that's the right word, given that both books were published simultaneously) with Dracula's Castle, based on Bram Stoker's most famous novel. I don't remember much of previous attempts, but I definitely encountered the inconveniently situated cliff-drop once, and I don't believe I've ever made it further than the Deadly Boudoir, where three ladies of the bite present a formidable obstacle just before the climactic encounter.

I play Jonathan Harker, a solicitor's clerk sent from London to Transylvania to see a client who plans to move to England. However, I am not the ignorant and clueless Harker of the first four chapters of Dracula. Aware that playing a hapless and hopeless character isn't a whole lot of fun, Brennan has made this Harker a student of the arcane, adept at various methods of fighting evil, who not only recognises the signs that a vampire is preying on the locals, but has deduced that the culprit is none other than his client, and is determined to prevent the blood-sucking fiend from setting foot on British soil. Even if that means leaving several contracts unsigned. In game terms, he looks like this:
Life Points: 100 (the default starting score)
Speed: 1
Courage: 2 (together, these sub-par attributes mean he'll rarely get first strike in combat)
Strength: 4
Skill: 4 (but whenever he hits an opponent, he does a decent amount of damage)
Psi: 5 (and he can make good use of his special abilities)
Slightly above average, and on the whole I think the strengths should outweigh the weaknesses.

A stagecoach deposits me at the castle gates, and hurriedly departs. My vampire-killing paraphernalia has become lost luggage, so I carry only a flannel, toothbrush, quill and paper, and an autographed copy of the first Grail Quest book. Self-referential gags like the latter are not uncommon in Brennan's later works, though I don't think he ever went so far as to have a gamebook appear within its own pages.

I can advance, or go back the way I came. Does running away from the adventure ever work out well in gamebooks? There's certainly nothing worth having to be gained by trying here, so I head up the driveway. A side path leads east, and I check that out. Further paths branch off, and I soon reach a dead end. But I can roll to search for secret doors in every section (and have been doing so since I stepped through the gates), and here I get my first successful roll of the game, leading to the discovery that this dead end... has no hidden exits. Woo.

But as I trudge back to the last junction, I search again, get another good roll, and find a trapdoor leading into an underground passage. This eventually leads to an overhead trapdoor, and the realisation that the map I've been drawing has just become that bit less useful, as I don't know how the point at which I emerge connects to the path network. Still, there's no turning back, so I climb out, finding myself in a wax museum filled with depictions of gruesome deaths. A mad axewoman attacks me. I can either try to reason with her (that option leads straight to the 'you are dead' section) or fight. I fight, losing almost half my Life, and after defeating my opponent I examine the corpse. It transpires that my late assailant was not a mad old woman, but a mad young man disguised as an old woman. During the fight, the axe head was irreparably damaged when it hit some hard object (my head, suggests Brennan), so the only loot I get is a silver key.

Harker heals faster than a Kai with Healing (though, in view of the different starting scores, proportionally HC healing is not really any better), so if I can get some fruitless wandering in, I should be back in decent shape by the time I next get into trouble. I decide to search the museum before leaving, and the wax dummies seem to move when I'm not looking at them. Probably just an authorial attempt at scaring me away from the decent treasure hidden here. Yep, there's garlic hidden in the model decapitated hunchback's mouth. But now it's time to go, and I can go straight from here to the driveway, so the map is salvageable.

Further wandering takes me to a ruined belltower, which I recklessly investigate (yeah, I could just stroll up and down the path until I'm healed, but it'd be a bit cheaty). A sinister hooded figure stands atop the remnants of a ruined staircase and hurls himself at me. He misses. Dialogue reveals him to be a guest of Dracula's, hiding in the tower because he knows what generally happens to the Count's guests. He offers to accompany me, and I accept because I remember from past attempts at the book that this is another character from the Hammer Films section of Christopher Lee's IMDB entry, namely Rasputin, and at least in this book, having him as a companion means extra healing after every fight I survive.

The next fight isn't far off. In the Dracula family graveyard, to be precise. A Zombie attacks me, and the accompanying illustration indicates a breakdown of communications somewhere, because the description of the graveyard clearly states that there are no crosses, crucifixes or other religious symbols to be seen, but guess what shape the gravestone clearly visible behind the Zombie is. Atrocious rolls mean that the Zombie two-thirds kills me before I get rid of it, but it does at least fail to infect me with fungoid rot, a disease every bit as delightful as the name suggests. The Zombie also happens to be carrying a bottle of healing potion, which I pocket for an emergency before heading towards the nearby crypt.

Peering through the keyhole in the crypt door, I see an eye staring at me. That old gag again. It's probably a bad idea, but I open the door anyway. Steps lead down to a coffin-filled chamber, guarded by a live gargoyle. Okay, let's hope that there's nothing too important in here...

I take the north exit from the graveyard and find myself in the castle courtyard. A pale and beautiful young woman is wandering about here, and I opt to keep a low profile. This book may not mention Mina, but that doesn't mean Harker isn't already affianced, and I wouldn't want to risk discovering that Ms. Murray is the stereotypical jealous type. As the woman goes past, I spot the tell-tale translucency that shows her to be a ghost. Still, I doubt that, "She was dead," would be a particularly effective defence against accusations of talking to strange women.

West of the courtyard is a cluster of buildings bearing a sign warning that they're the last place I would want to enter. I put that theory to the test. A jovial chap in top hat, frock coat and green apron greets me by name, and tells me that his name is Unimportant. Samuel Unimportant. More commonly known as the Happy Undertaker. He invites me to join him and some friends for a drink.

Job satisfaction is usually a good thing.

I accept, and find that his friends are all a little on the deceased side. Some absurd banter leads to the revelation that Mr. Unimportant and his late friends constitute a political Party, and joining it could lead to assistance in my quest. But I would have to pass a test to prove my worthiness to join. I opt to face the challenge, which turns out to be a puzzle (the Happy Undertaker toys with a trepanning instrument and points out that, should I lack sufficient brains to solve the problem, he can always try a transplant!). It's variant on the 'Fox, goose and bag of beans' puzzle, with a twist that renders it impossible. A strange game. Declaring my inability to come up with an answer proves the correct answer, and after making the corpses applaud, Mr. Unimportant presents me with my membership card and lists the attendant perks, which include getting to reduce all vampire-inflicted damage by 2. Not a lot, but it all adds up. The Happy Undertaker then leads a rousing chorus of the Party Song, which goes about as well as you'd expect a sing-along to go when only two of the participants are alive, and one of them doesn't know the words. Time to explore somewhere less silly.

Steps lead east from the courtyard into the sunken garden. Which should perhaps be called the sinking garden, as a patch of quicksand has been left there to trap the unwary. Good thing Strength and Skill are among my higher stats, as they're the ones that determine whether I escape or sink. While dragging myself free, I find a golden key, and before departing I discover another hidden tunnel. Disappointingly, it just leads back to the Undertaker's.

Seeing no point in going through the rigmarole of applying for Party membership again, I return to the courtyard, a bad transition causing me to witness the aftermath of a fight I never had. I don't know whether the key lying on the ground should be considered spoils of battle, but I grab it anyway.

A gateway leads northwest to the stable yard. Either there's a typo in the description, or the exit to the orchard is via a wooden replica of one of a trio of mythical goddesses. Whatever the exit is, I take it, and am lured into an ambush by a vampire apple. It's not much of a fighter, but the just under 1/3 chance of inadvertently biting it and being fatally poisoned makes the fight that bit trickier. Luckily, I manage to kill the apple with one blow before it can get anywhere near my mouth. And the Rasputin-based healing I get after the battle brings me back to full health.

A message has been carved into the bark of the tree. Looks like mostly useful advice, including a recommendation to take a stake of applewood. I try to cut one from the tree, which objects and attempts to throttle me. And my woefully low Speed proves my undoing, as there is no way of rolling less than 1 on 1d6. So I don't exactly live apple-ly ever after.

Brennan's gamebooks are often stronger on entertainment value than playability. I'd rather that than the other way round, but it does sometimes make for perfunctory endings like the one above. Dracula's Castle is a fun gamebook (provided you have the right kind of sense of humour), but not one that's ever going to be particularly easy to win by the rules.

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