Monday, 30 July 2012

But I Was Young and Foolish Then

The third (and, for now, final) lengthy non-FF series I'm covering in this blog is Proteus, an 'Adventure Game Magazine' from the 1980s. I played through the series extensively for the purpose of reviewing it back in 2004, but I don't think I've replayed any of them in the intervening time. The reviews are online, if anyone wants to check them out, though I imagine a good number of the points I raised in them will come up in the course of the playthroughs anyway.

I acquired my copy of Proteus 1, The Tower of Terror, from the Book Exchange across the road from the Post Office in Tunbridge Wells. It was a frequent haunt of mine in the 1980s, until it closed down, and provided me with a variety of reading material. Doctor Who novelisations, old issues of Mad magazine, one or two of John Christopher's Tripods trilogy, several Ian Flemings, and a few gamebooks, including this one. The original owner had written on the Quest Sheet in pencil, and some young idiot with my handwriting wrote over the top of it in pen. Given vague memories of reading the mag in Tesco while my mum was buying groceries, it's possible that the pen was the only writing implement to hand, but that's really no excuse.

My character in TToT starts out as a student at the Academy of the Grand Wizard Eleutheria, but drops out part of the way through the introduction because he's bored and wants to go adventuring. Not far away is a town ruled over by an evil Wizard, and I'm sufficiently full of myself to believe that I can overthrow the tyrant. And am I the sort of person who has a chance of that?
Dexterity: 11 (Not as impressive as you might think, as at this stage its 1d6+8)
Strength: 27 (As high as it gets, so I'll take a bit longer to kill)
Courage: 7 (Not good)
Before setting off, I pilfer half a dozen Potions of Magic, which function a lot like the spells from The Citadel of Chaos. I'll go with Searching, Intuition, Flying, Madness, Calm and Revitalization.

Proceeding to the town of Darkblood (which ranks somewhere below Grimsby in the 'cheery place names' listings), I encounter Golfreth, a man who's been partially transformed into a toad-like creature by the Wizard Belenghast, and am arbitarily attacked by the subject of the cover illustration (though, still being in the intro, I automatically overcome him). While the writing here is nothing special, I do appreciate author David Brunskill's having made the effort to provide evidence of Belenghast's villainy before I invade the Wizard's home.

Famous for fifteen seconds

I can't help but wonder if the bulk of the adventure had yet to be written when the cover art was commissioned. Of all the things to put on the front of the magazine, an unidentified mook you deck before you properly get started seems a strange choice. The relationship between Proteus' text and its art is a peculiar one, and I may well have more to say on the topic in future entries.

The last time I played this, I did it with the miniaturised replica of the issue given away free with issue 9. I mention this because today I'm using the proper issue 1, and tucked into it is a piece of squared paper on which my teenaged self started to map the tower interior. Not very informative, but an unexpected blast from the past.

Anyway, on with the adventure. My character finds the eponymous tower reminiscent of a volcano, which suggests that I've never actually seen what a volcano looks like.

Vesuvius? Etna? Mount Doom?

Undeterred, I enter and before long I encounter a hostile Giant. This is going to be a tough fight, but not impossible. Despite having a lower Dexterity, I hit him exactly as many times as he hits me, and my roof-level Strength means that I'm not even half dead by the time the Giant keels over. Relieving him of a silver key, I risk heading off the map at the next junction, which proves a wiser choice than the one I made as a teen.

Before long I reach the door that that key fits, and beyond it is the home of a small Troll. Objecting to my intrusion, he lunges at me with a silver lance, but I dodge it. In this fight I have the higher Dexterity (just), and the dice aren't as kind to Trollboy as they were to me against the Giant. Taking the lance, I continue on my way.

At the next junction I have the option of taking a Potion of Searching, but I risk trusting my memory, and I'm right, proceeding to the room with the Zombie in. Whereas FF Zombies are among the lowest of the low among the undead (though Ian Livingstone's new book is liable to provide a different approach), the one here is a nasty piece of work, only vulnerable to silver weapons, and quite capable of Instant Deathing an ill-equipped hero. I'm not ill-equipped, but the subsequent fight is still harsh, and I take quite a beating before the Zombie disintegrates to reveal a bronze key.

The next junction offers a rare opportunity to go south. I think it may lead to one of the arbitrary Instant Deaths that mar several issues of the magazine, and go the other way. The passage twists and turns a lot, and leads to a door that can only be opened with a bronze key. This is a bottleneck section, so a player who missed any of the fights I've had would now have failed. It's also the section numerically after the one for that south turning that made me wary, and a sneaky glance up the page confirms my suspicions. Functionally identical to this unhappy ending.

But I didn't go that way, and I did follow the chain of combats necessary for progress beyond the section I'm actually on, so I can proceed to the second phase of the adventure. Which isn't that different from the first one, as it starts with more wandering around passages. A wrong turning causes me to blunder into a pit of quicksand, and extricating myself costs a lot of Strength. Time to take that Potion of Revitalization, which restores me to full health.

Further meanderings bring me to a room with a floor that tilts and rocks like something from a funhouse, or Balthus Dire's room just after you peek inside his head. Hoping that I've missed the spiked pit encounter that's somewhere in here, I knock back the Potion of Flying. And it's back to trudging around passages.

An alcove offers a wooden chest and a wall plaque. More memories of past attempts urge me towards the chest, which contains a parchment bearing a message in a strange language. I can forgive the teenager I was for speculating that it might be a code. But writing in the actual magazine to try and figure it out? In felt tip? At least I only wrote two letters before realising that it wasn't going to work.

Anyway, the Potion of Intuition will solve it, and the linguistic skills I have developed in the intervening years cause me to pick up on the fact that the words 'Netherig' and 'Öen' become 'North' and 'West' in the translation. Don't know whether Mr. Brunskill found an actual ancient language to use or just made this up, but even if it is a fabrication, it looks authentic. Nice work. And I know which way to go, for a bit, at least.

The directions lead me to a room filled with books about magic. An old man greets me, explaining that he's not Belenghast, but if I want to find the Wizard I seek, I must solve a puzzle. Proteus was very big on puzzles, and I'm pretty sure there's at least one in every issue. This one involves probability, and I had no problems solving it even back when I was twit enough to write in magazines in pen.

This tower features a lot more horizontal travel than vertical. Presented with a second opportunity to use my Potion of Searching, I decide that this is probably the moment for which I've been saving it, and am saved from going the wrong way. Another locked door, and I'm all out of keys, but this door can be broken down, unlike the ones for which I found the keys. It costs me a few Strength, but I'd probably have lost at least as much in the fight that provides the key, had I found it.

Beyond the door is a cell, and the prisoner within has been suspended by a rope from a hook in the wall. Upside-down. Which isn't very nice. And around his neck is the McGuffin Golfreth mentioned I'd need way back in the intro. I don't know why Belenghast keeps the key to his inner sanctum here, but that ancient parchment told me I'd need to release the prisoner, so maybe fate or prophecy compelled him to. Or maybe it's just standard gamebook (il)logic. Oh, no, I retract my snark. The prisoner explains that he was an adventurer, and found the item in question, but was then captured by Belenghast's Faceless Guards, who didn't notice it or failed to recognise its importance, and decided to hang him here to die slowly for their own amusement without first consulting their boss. He's in no fit state to face Belenghast, so he gives me the item and tells me which way to go.

Following his directions, I wind up having to go through a cloud of flies for no readily apparent reason. Unless they're there to justify refusing to allow players to head this way from the other direction. A flimsy pretext, but better than the Deverite-baiting, 'You see a passage on your left, but ignore it,' that I get here. Okay, so the directions I was given said nothing about turning that way, but I'd have come to this section even if I hadn't gone into the cell, so the restriction can't be solely down to following the prisoner's advice.

Up some stairs (he finally remembered that this is a tower) I reach the door that can only be unlocked with my newest toy. Through I go. Further on is another door, with three levers beside it. The old Wizard appears again and tells me I need to pull two of them to open the door. Does he say which two? Of course not. This isn't a puzzle: it's a guessing game. My first guess is wrong, and I take some damage. After using my last healing, I try another combination. Bingo!

Suddenly, nonsensically, the old Wizard turns out to be Belenghast after all. He sheds his disguise, revealing himself to be a formidable warrior, and I hurriedly knock back the potion I've been hanging onto for just this encounter. While Belenghast is performing an involuntary BRIAN BLESSED impersonation and savaging the scenery, I get in a few good blows, bringing down his Dexterity as well as his Strength. When the potion's effect wears off and battle commences, I have a slight edge, but this could still go either way.

Remember that healing I took before my second go at the levers? It restored 5 Strength. By the time Belenghast died, I was down to 5 Strength. Whew!

Returning to the town, I am approached by a strange man, and prepare to defend myself before realising that it's Golfreth, returned to his true form by the Wizard's death. A neat touch. And after a bit of padding to bulk the adventure out to 200 sections, victory is mine.

For the most part this is a pretty run-of-the-mill adventure, and all that plodding around corridors gets tiresome after a while. Nevertheless, it did pleasantly surprise me in places, and it's significantly better than some of its successors. And a fair few of its rivals, too. A more promising start than I remembered.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Time Can Be Rewoven

There's been a minor resurgence of interest in the Golden Dragon Adventures at the FF forum recently, so now seems as good a time as any to focus this blog's attention on the series.

I was a bit of a slow starter on the GDAs. Can't say why, as I didn't come across anything off-putting when flicking through copies in shops. Indeed, one of my strongest memories of the first book, Dave Morris' Crypt of the Vampire, is of coming across a nicely gruesome Instant Death (contracting a plague nastier than a hybrid of Ebola and the Black Death's worst aspects) in the Tonbridge branch of WHSmith in early 1985. Still, for whatever reason, I didn't make a start on collecting the books until 1986. By which time CotV had disappeared from the retailers' shelves, so it remained on the want list until a copy turned up in a second-hand bookshop. Probably the Book Exchange I'll say more about in the next entry. The previous owner had written on the Character Sheet in pencil, and appeared to believe that 'Lesley Crowther' was a suitably heroic name for their character.

While several of the later GDAs provide fairly detailed character biographies, this one has nothing. Not even a generic 'you are an adventurer'. It just starts with me lost in a forest as nightfall approaches. So what can I say about my character?
Vigour: 26
Agility: 8
Psi: 8
Not bad, considering that Agility and Psi are each 1d6+3. So I'm moderately healthy, fairly quick on my feet, and possessed of a decent amount of mental fortitude. None of which will do me a lot of good if the wolves I hear get to me. Good thing I've just come across an isolated stately home, right?

There's a wall around the grounds, and a gate with an unusual design - latticework in the shape of a taloned figure. Vines growing up the wall provide a less sinister-looking way of getting in. An Elf with a bow approaches, and memories of past attempts at the book prompt me to attack before he can fire. He's delirious rather than villainous, but an arrow in the arm hurts just as badly regardless of the archer's intent. The fight is soon over, and the dying Elf mumbles something about an evil Lord who sleeps until sunset. My character can't be particularly genre-savvy, as he speculates that the puncture marks on the Elf's neck could be an animal bite.

Outside the house is a stagnant pond, with a few coins half-buried in the muck at the bottom. Contrary to what might be expected, taking the money has no harmful consequences beyond mild unease at the sliminess of the water, so I pocket the gold before trying the front door, which is unlocked. Nosing around, I find a library. Apart from the inevitable books, I find a lantern and an ornate ivory chair. The accompanying illustration shows the latter to have a displeasingly skeletal motif. This library is a good deal less informative than Balthus Dire's (who thought an encyclopedia with no coherent order to its entries and no index was a good idea?), so I don't sit down for a read.

Rummaging around in a storage room, I am attacked by a very puny animated skeleton, and find a golden helmet. The next door I reach has a crucifix embossed on it, and leads to a room where a monk lives. Harkas, the monk explains that this building is owned by Lord Tenebron, a Vampire. Lacking the fighting prowess to get past Tenebron's guards and kill him, Harkas has created a sanctuary for himself where he can offer advice and aid to adventurers who have a shot at destroying the Vampire, which strikes me as a good practical example of Studd's 'rescue shop within a yard of hell'. Since the Elf who entered the crypt a fortnight ago appears to have been unsuccessful, Harkas provides me with a back-up lantern and the choice of a crucifix or a Potion of Iron Will. Only one, so if I fare no better than the Elf, he has something for the next adventurer. Not much of a vote of confidence, but it makes sense.

Descending to the cellar, I choose not to drink... wine, but press on into the network of passages below the house. The next door I try leads to a bedroom, where I, er, collect the silverware to get it assessed for an insurance claim. A Witch with a pet crow enters and orders me to leave, creating a beast out of smoke and setting it on me when I decline. I have no trouble dealing with it, and the Witch vanishes to plot a rematch. Searching the room turns up nothing else of note, except for the chimney, which I could climb. Not that there's any particularly rational reason for doing so, but when did I ever let a detail like that stop me?

Some way up I use a loose brick as a foothold, but manage to keep from falling, and find a Moebius strip-shaped ring in the cavity behind the brick. Climbing on, I emerge into the forest. Wasn't I trying to get away from it at the start? Still, now I'm up here, I may as well take a moonlit stroll.

Trudging through the mist, I notice some fungi and, remembering legends that the wood's mushrooms have mystic powers, contemplate eating one. My character does get some wacky ideas. I go along with this one and, after a (well-written) brief hallucination that the trees are about to get me, receive a regrettably unusable bonus. After which, by authorial command, I decide to climb back down the chimney rather than proceeding to the mildly spooky teaser encounter with Tenebron that I know can be found in the forest.

The descent is not without its hazards, as wandering around a damp forest has cost me some traction. Nevertheless, my Agility holds out, and I reach the bottom with dignity and health intact. And back to the actual quest.

Further along the corridor is an evil chapel, with black candles and a chalice of suspect red liquid. I'm not fool enough to try drinking (though the option is there). A quick search reveals a hidden compartment containing a bone-shaped piece of marble. This time I don't get to steal assess the candlesticks.

The next stretch of corridor is decorated with portraits of the various Lords Tenebron, and a right rogues' gallery they are. Close by the picture of the thirteenth, the Vampire, are the mouldering remains of one of my predecessors (or possibly an art critic). His armour has rusted, but his sword of shimmering blue metal is still in good nick, so I take it.

The corridor leads to a long-abandoned dining hall, dominated by a painting of an archer. You know how, with some portraits, it seems as if the eyes follow you around the room? With this one, the arrows follow you around the room, and they do just as much damage as the real thing. Now you know why an art critic might need to wear armour.

I demonstrate that that strong light sources don't generally do works of art a lot of good, by throwing my lantern at the painting. The archer doesn't like that. Lighting my spare lantern, I ascend one of the flights of stairs leading from the room and encounter a hostile Barbarian, who manages to wound me a couple of times before I permanently pacify him. His treasure consists of a little cash and the remains of his lunch (and GDA doesn't restore health with Provisions like FF), but there are some useful items among the comestibles. Garlic has obvious value for the climax, but you'd be surprised at the inventive ways in which threats can be diminished or averted with cheese, pepper, or fermented yak's milk. Well, with two of them, at least.

In another room I play chess against a silent old man, only it gets a little too immersive, as I wind up commanding a white-clad army against black-garbed troops, ultimately getting bludgeoned to death by the Black Queen. This is surprisingly non-lethal, but does deplete my Psi a bit. Next time I'll ask if we can try Scrabble or Connect 4.

The next noteworthy room has two exits, and contains a chest with a coil of rope on top. And yes, the rope does animate and try to throttle me when I get close. There are quite a few Instant Death paragraphs accessible from this encounter, the majority resulting from what should be self-evidently stupid choices (no, when the rope is already wrapped around your neck and choking you, running away will not help), but there are a couple of ways of getting out of it alive, and I go for the one that doesn't carry some risk of ending in a severed jugular (impressively OTT though that demise is). And the contents of the chest do justify the unpleasantness that precedes getting them.

Some more good writing in the next room, as it becomes creepily apparent that there's something alive under the floorboards. It doesn't stay under them for long, though, an arm bursting through. My sword has no effect on it, and as the arm's owner erupts into the room, I recognise it as a Wight. Emulating Colonel Mustard in the study, I hit it with a candlestick. That does the trick, eventually, and I grab the Wight's golden armband before moving on.

Reaching a corridor illuminated by an oil lamp, I decide that another spare light source could come in handy, and take the lamp with me. This makes it a lot easier to extinguish the lamp and creep through a nearby door under cover of darkness when a couple of concealed snipers take an interest in me.

Relighting the lamp once the door is between me and the archers, I see that I'm at the top of a staircase. There's a hole in the wall, big enough for me to put my hand into, and deep enough that I get elbow-deep before finding anything interesting. The Wight's bling saves me from a poisoned needle trap, and I retrieve a key from the end of the hole.

Down the stairs and along the corridor, stopping off to check out a door that leads into a paladin's tomb. Guess what I do here.

If you answered, 'steal his shroud' then either you know this book as well as I do, or you're weird. (The former may be a subset of the latter.) The thing is, taking the shroud renders me intangible (but still subject to gravity), and avoiding unwise decisions that would end my adventure nastily allows me to pass through the floor into a secret chamber, where I can acquire a magic shield. I'm not sure what moral this is intended to illustrate.

The passage leads to a murky pool, crossed by stepping stones. While the water is quite shallow, wading is inadvisable, as this pool is inhabited. By Zombies. This is another hazardous encounter, unless you happen to have a paladin's shield, in which case its Unicorn insignia comes to life to slaughter the Zombies. That moral's not becoming any clearer.

Up ahead are three doors. Two are locked, but that copper key opens one of them, to reveal my old enemy the Witch, too intent on brewing up something nasty in her cauldron to spot me. I creep up on her, intending to add her to the ingredients of her noxious concoction, but a creaking floorboard warns her, and she summons up something nasty. Not nasty enough, though, and her combat skills are risible. The spoils of this fight are a silver key and three unlabelled bottles of liquid, one of which I know to lead to that sticky end that so impressed me back in '85. The other two restore my attributes to their starting levels, though, so I drink them and leave the lethal one where it is.

That silver key opens the other locked door, behind which is a table with five gems on it. One gem is useful. Three others deplete attributes. The last is a really nasty trap, which either sends you to an Instant Death or hurls you back through time to the fight with the Elf. But I know which is the safe one.

From there I proceed to a cluttered storeroom, where a spinning wheel catches my eye. It's too early in Dave Morris' gamebook-writing career for hundred-year-long naps to be a serious risk, so I look closer. It's damaged, but the wheel still turns. Spin it anticlockwise, and for a moment I find myself back in the Witch's bedroom, stealing her candlesticks (and I checked years ago - there is no way of getting to this room if you didn't take them). Spin it clockwise, and I flash forward to being pursued down a winding corridor towards a candlelit chamber containing a coffin. And then I'm back at the wheel.

Moving on, I reach a four-way intersection, and am told I turn right because that passage is widest. While I appreciate that there often has to be a way to ensure that the reader picks 'onwards' rather than 'the wrong way along an alternate route to this bottleneck', is passage width really the best explanation Dave could come up with?

The wide passage leads to a choice of two doors with fancy handles. Deverites will be exasperated to find that there's no indication which is on the left. But they'll probably pick the pewter handle because it has bits of moonstone in it and the McGuffin Grey Star needs is called the Moonstone. It won't help them. Won't necessarily harm them, but if they insist on investigating the item behind that door, they're liable to wind up undead, dead, or wealthy. Okay, so one of those options isn't so bad, but are you willing to risk the other two for a chance at it? (If so, Ian Livingstone has a Dungeon you might like to enter. More than one, in fact.)

I try the copper-and-jade handle instead, and enter a room containing a wooden chest. The chest is packed with treasure. But that helmet I acquired a while back has limited illusion-detecting capabilities, and reveals that all the loot has 'This is a fake' written on it in felt tip, as it were.

Moving onwards, I enter a hall with windows that look down on open countryside, where a group of knights is approaching a couple of tents. This strikes me as odd, given that I'm currently underground (and that's in the text, not just blogger-me quibbling). Curious, I watch to see what happens, consequently learning that my puzzlement was the helmet's way of telling me that there was a heavy-duty illusion in place here to distract me until the Giant Spider could make it difficult for me to escape.

Not the most effective way of explaining something important, to be sure, but clearer than some. Now isn't there something I was forgetting?

 Oh, yes.

Good thing the Spider's a rubbish fighter. I kill it with ease, extricate myself from the web, and take its loot.

Yet more stairs lead down to a corridor guarded by a Hellhound. There's more than one way to get past this beast unscathed, but by far my favourite is the marble bone, which turns out to be the Hellhound equipment of a dog toy. Vicious, fire-breathing beast suddenly becomes soppy and playful. Love it.

Past Fido I find a drawing room, where a tall man is sitting reading. He orders me to come over and sit with him, but I have other things on my mind. You see, I found a silver crucifix in the Spider's room, and I'm not sure whether or not it's Harkas' handiwork. I get it out, along with the one the monk gave me, and ask if the man thinks they could have been made by the same person. His response is unprintable.

Yes, this is Lord Tenebron XIII. Not fighting at his peak thanks to the garlic I'm carrying, and he only manages to hit me once all fight. But is he really dead?

Yes, because the shiny blue sword turns out to be magical enough to have properly killed him. So the spinning wheel flashforward of the frantic pursuit towards the coffin never happens. I've just proved the existence of free will. Or possibly broken the space/time continuum.

Two wins in a row. An enjoyable book (and one of the few in the series that can be won with relative ease), but that playthrough made me aware of how arbitrary and even counter-intuitive some of the optimal decisions are. Even so, this is nowhere near the worst offender in that regard, and the quality of the writing in several sequences is ample compensation for the odd daft element.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

The Instruction We Find in Books

Back to Fighting Fantasy with The Citadel of Chaos, another gamebook I first experienced by borrowing someone else's copy. First time round, playing without dice, I got as far as the Ganjees' room. I didn't have any of the items that could be used there, so I cheated and pretended I did. Only I selected the one item that's not any help there, and wound up falling to my doom, as I'd wasted my Levitation spell on a Super Happy Fun Slide earlier. Except that, not having learned my lesson, I cheated again and restored the spell to my inventory. It didn't work. There was no third opportunity to cheat. My adventure ended there.

In case you've somehow managed to get here without knowing the premise of TCoC, it's another 'break into the wizard's home and kill him' plot. With the significant difference that this wizard is a warmongering villain, gathering together an army in preparation for invading a nearby region (though it's probably just a coincidence that his name contains all the letters of the word 'Hitler'). I play the part of a magician-in-training, sent on a covert mission of assassination, armed with only my wits, my sword and... Hang on a minute...
Skill: 12
Stamina: 21
Luck: 8
Magic: 13
... and a baker's dozen of spells. More specifically: Creature Copy (times three), E.S.P., Illusion, Levitation (times two), Luck (times two), Shielding, Stamina (times two) and Weakness. That should cover most of the contingencies I'm liable to encounter.

Like Firetop Mountain, this place has guards. But these guards are awake, though they can't have been particularly alert when they got up, as they've come out wearing each other's heads. It's a good deal more noticeable than odd socks, as one of them's an Ape, the other a Dog. Or, in their current mixed-up state, a Dog-Ape and an Ape-Dog. Or is it an Ape-Dog and a Dog-Ape? Paying attention to the text makes it clear that the naming convention goes (animal head type)-(animal body type). So now you know, and can avoid making social blunders when meeting hybrids of this nature.

I pretend to be a herbalist, summoned to heal a sick guard, as I know how to blag my way through this encounter. It is worth mentioning, just for the comedy value, that, should the simio-canine/cano-simian twosome turn hostile, it is possible to cast a Strength spell and inadvertently fling your sword into the middle distance as a result of flourishing it too hard. But I'm playing to try and break my losing streak, not to make people laugh, so I make up a vaguely convincing name for my patient and am allowed in.

Only as far as the courtyard, though. Not wishing to make myself conspicuous by trying to avoid attracting attention, I join a group of more conventional fantasy non-humans around a fire. There's an Orc, a green Dwarf, and a couple of Goblins. That's 'couple' in the relationship sense, though I'm afraid the female Goblin will soon have to start looking for a new partner.

As I'm in a wretched hive of scum and villainy, I disregard social niceties and sit down without being invited. This sufficiently intimidates the group that I'm able to get them to tell me the password for the next door, but then my questioning irritates them enough that the males attack me. I make short work of them, and Ms. Goblin departs in search of a singles bar while I loot her ex and his friends. For no adequately explained reason there's a limit to what I can take, so I ignore the cash and grab a key, a jar of ointment and a potion that'll let me reuse two of my spells.

Proceeding towards the main entrance to the tower, I am waylaid by a sentient female whirlwind. I have little fondness for the wind, and try to ignore her, so she blows me over. This annoys me, which pleases her. She likes making people angry. After a while, she drifts off, waiting for someone to invent the internet so she can troll discussion groups. I carry on to the door, and the password I learned gets me past the Rhino-Man guarding it. The Rhino-Man, incidentally, is an anthropomorphised Rhino rather than another head-swapped hybrid, so don't expect a Man-Rhino to show up. That would be weird.

Swaggering my way past the Igor-esque butler, I carry on to the reception room, which contains a light-sleeping Gark. Half-Goblin, half-Giant (don't consider the implications, it'll only upset you), and tough enough to use an axe for a pillow. I take a little damage fighting it, but prevail all the same. The loot available here consists of a little money and a hairbrush, and as the Gark was bald except for a ponytail, I'm guessing the brush wasn't for personal use.

Two doors lead onwards. Past experience has taught me that one leads to a gaming room, where I get mistaken for someone with a very odd name and can be maimed or killed if I choose to play one of the more hard-core games. I pick the other door, which leads me to the library. Yes, Mr. Dire may be a bloodthirsty warmonger, but at least he provides an opportunity for his troops to get some reading done when they're not out slaughtering and pillaging.

The first book I read mentions the combination for the lock that bars entry into Dire's private room. Balthus' making this fact publically available is about as sensible as my telling you all that the password to my gmail account is 'elbillugosmi'. Similarly daft is the fact that the next book I look at describes a lethal weakness of Dire's. It'd be understandable if the weakness were a food allergy and I'd read about it in the kitchen, but that's not the case. Mind you, this does indirectly suggest that he doesn't eat cucumbers.

The librarian is getting an 'I could close up early and get an early night if you weren't still here' look on his face, but I ignore the warning signs and start looking for a copy of Booby-Trapped Staircases of the Black Tower. This turns out to be pushing my luck that bit too far, and I wind up in the dungeons. My jailer today is a Calacorm, a two-headed lizard that talks to itself a lot. Like Grey Star, I use an illusion to gain my freedom. Oddly, the only exit is a secret door at the top of a staircase at the end of a long twisty-turny corridor, which must be a bit annoying to any guards who have to bring prisoners in. Though the ones who captured me in the library appeared to teleport in, so maybe they don't need to use the passage. Even so, I imagine it's a bother to the Calacorm on his days off.

Behind a locked door I encounter a Leprechaun, but I'm too familiar with the encounter to fall for any of his tiresome pranks. No wasting spells to protect myself from hurled tomatoes or illusory monsters, and no letting him use his joy buzzer on me. Just endure the shenanigans and grab the magic sword and mirror he hands over before I go on my way.

Disregarding the insoluble-with-the-available-data puzzle of which is the best exit to take, at least according to the Leprechaun, I just choose a door and wind up in the wine cellar. The Black Elf who works there lets me sample a glass of Château Sérum de Vérité, and in vino veritas I let slip that I'm here to kill his boss, as a result of which I have to kill him, too. Okay, so I could have avoided that situation quite easily, but the Elf owns a nifty multi-purpose weapon known as a Pocket Myriad, which I fancied owning. Besides, sampling a wine after he's popped his cork allows me to take a bottle of Château Cracheur de Feu, which tastes like burning, but is functionally indistinguishable from a Fire spell.

Further meandering brings me to the room where Marsten failed in his mission. Normally I wouldn't waste my time in here, but this time I'll tarry so as to show him what he could have won. So I advance to the chests on the table, the Golem attacks, I manage not to get as killed as Marsten did, and I turn my attention to the boxes. I force open the first one, which contains the key to the second one. The second one contains the key to the third one. The third one does not contain the key to the first one, though that would have been amusing. No, the ultimate treasure that can be acquired in this room is a jar containing a spider with the face of an old man. Which, for inconsistency's sake, is known as a Spider-Man rather than a Man-Spider.

From there I proceed to the bottleneck that is the dining hall. There's nothing to be gained by loitering here, so I'd better go upstairs. Never did get to check which flight was the dodgy one, and I choose poorly. Still, one Levitation spell and a sip of potion later, I'm up on the balcony and none the worse for wear.

Three doors again. The one I try is locked, but the key I got in the courtyard opens it, gaining me access to the private bedchamber of Mrs. Lucretia Dire. She is not entirely happy about this, and her fiery temper is matched by the fiery beams that lance from her eyes towards me - at least until I say I have a gift for her. Yes, I may be intruding in her bedroom in the middle of the night (well, not quite the middle, actually), but she forgets her anger the moment I offer her a hairbrush. And while she's trying it out, I steal her bedspread. Which is a Golden Fleece, but 'I steal her Golden Fleece' is such an odd phrase that readers might have taken it for a double entendre. Not sure what it would mean, but I don't advise Googling it without putting SafeSearch on first, just in case. And if it does happen to mean something obscene, I do not wish to know the details.

Stairs lead up to two doors. I pick one, and enter a room containing a deep, wide, circular trench around a chest. Just by the door is a coil of rope. I suspect that this is the Doompit Trap mentioned in the first book I read. It's certainly a trap, and I shall not be demonstrating how it works.

More stairs, and this time just one door. Beyond it is a very dark room inhabited by the mysterious Ganjees, who mock me in a variety of pitches and terrify me with a big glow-in-the-dark face. They might not sound like much, but if you reach this room without the right item, you die. Why the right item turns out to be that jar of ointment, I have not the faintest idea, but it is.

Another flight of stairs, another single door, and behind this one is a Hydra, star of the cover illustration of the most recent editions of the book. There are three possible ways of getting past it, all of them open to me, but two depend on random factors, so I'll go for the 100% reliable one and hand over the bedspread. No, I don't imagine the expression 'give the Hydra Mrs. Dire's Golden Fleece' means anything naughty, but you Google it at your own risk.

Stairs: the final flight. The door at the top has a combination lock, but that's not a problem for me. The trident hurtling towards my throat the moment I open the door, now that's a problem. Or would be if I'd wasted my Shielding spell on a tomato.

And here he is. Balthus Dire himself. Sporting a similar hairdo to the Gark, only his ponytail is levitating because he's a Demi-Sorcerer. In one of the most famous lines from the entire FF range, he calls me an 'Impudent peasant' and sets a Clawbeast on me. Clawbeasts are hairy, vicious, and quite staggeringly vulnerable to Weakness spells. So that fight's over before it can begin.

Dire wasn't expecting that. While he's surprised, I cast my E.S.P. spell, which elicits a paraphrase of the infamous, "No, not the Mind Probe!" Most of the fragmentary images pulled from his thoughts relate to potential aspects of the ongoing confrontation, but one, 'a sense of horror at a high-pitched screech' goes unexplained. Unless it's indicative of marital troubles in the Dire household.

In retaliation for my mind-reading, Dire causes the room to shake violently, though it has no effect on him. Nor on me as soon as I cast a Levitation spell. And now I can play it safe, or go for a slight challenge. That lethal weakness I read about in the library? Sunlight. And back in Mrs. Dire's room I said it wasn't actually the middle of the night because I knew that by the time I got to Balthus' room (as opposed to the Balthus Room, which I'll get to (or pass) in a later entry) it would be morning. So I need only bring down the curtain, and he'll join the choir invisible.

But I can probably take him in a fight. Almost certainly, if I arm myself with one of two items I spotted in his mind. So I take the chance. Nip behind him, steal his magic Ring of Swordsmanship, and the 2-point Skill edge that gives me should compensate for the 1-point Stamina advantage he has. En garde!

Like the Gark and the Golem before him, he manages to wound me just the once. Even without my choosing the instant kill option, it's curtains for Balthus. Apologies for the dire pun.

So Mrs. Dire will be joining the female Goblin in the singles bar, Dire's battle plan is in flames, and I'm using my last Levitation spell to exit via the window and avoid finding out what the Ganjees have planned for a rematch. A win, at last.

Of course that wasn't my real gmail password (read it backwards if you thought it was). For all my faults, I am smarter than Balthus Dire in at least this regard.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

"I Reckon It's a Political Statement."

I've worked out a rough pattern for playing the gamebooks. A three-stage cycle.
1) Something from one of the more substantial series.
2) The next Fighting Fantasy adventure.
3) Something from a short series, or a one-off.
So having done one from each category, I'm now back at the start of the cycle, and I think it's time to venture into Joe Dever's Magnamund. I'm counting The World of Lone Wolf and the mini-adventures from The Magnamund Companion and the Mongoose Publishing Lone Wolf reissues as part of the LW series, and endeavouring to go by internal chronology rather than publication order. Which means starting with TWoLW, as far as I know. To give credit (or blame) where it's due, this series was actually written by Ian Page, with Joe acting as editor.

With series like this, that have actual character progression, I shall be carrying the same character over from one book to the next - if I succeed at the book. If I fail, I'll create a new character at the start of the next book (but expect anecdotes about the different and insane approach I tried back in the nineties once I get to the LW books).

I start my adventures in Magnamund as Grey Star the Wizard. For a surprisingly long time, I didn't own this book. The first time I played the series, I borrowed all the books from my friend Edward Webb (if you've just discovered this site as a result of googling your own name, Ed, hello). Eventually I acquired copies of some of the series (more about them when I get to the relevant books), but by the time I definitively got back into gamebooks, I didn't have any TWoLW, and wound up buying the set on eBay. I got in a surprisingly low bid on a lot that contained all four, plus the Magnakai LW books, and as I already had the others, I managed to convince the seller not to send them, thereby drastically reducing the price of postage. The seller can't have been the fan who originally collected them (and wrote on the Action Charts in pencil, demonstrating an inability to spell 'Alchemy' and 'Prophecy' correctly), as I had to explain which were the books I actually wanted (the ones with green spines, not pink).

And on with the adventure. Lots of backstory, which can be boiled down to, 'I'm the chosen one, raised by ancient otherworldly mystics to fight the big bad because they're forbidden to intervene, and must now go on a quest for a mystical McGuffin to save the world.'
Combat Skill: 14 (If I'm remembering a certain fight correctly, I am so dead)
Willpower: 27
Endurance: 22 (Not so much Grey Star as Red Shirt)
Magical Powers: Sorcery, Enchantment, Alchemy, Prophecy, Evocation

My quest starts with me departing the island where I've been raised and trained. I may be in for a rough journey, as I didn't pick Elementalism as one of my powers. No, just minor inconvenience. Before long I reach the Port of Suhn, and opt to sneak in after dark. A one-eyed ne'er do well spots me, and the price of his silence is selling him my boat for not much. My Prophetic abilities let me know that letting him rip me off is probably the best thing to do, so I agree to the deal, and follow his advice on where to seek information.

Proceeding to the Inn of the Laughing Moon, I must choose a conversational partner. Will it be the sailor snoring away in a drunken stupor, the merry merchant, or the not-remotely-suspicious-honest hooded figure in the shadows? I could use Prophecy, but it's not that hard a choice anyway. Especially as I remember from my previous playing of the book that the merchant is this series' designated Mungo. (On the off-chance that anyone reading this doesn't know that a Mungo is a doomed ally in a gamebook, all will be explained around 17 blog posts from now.)

The merchant, whose name is Shan, may know something about the people I need to seek as phase 1 of completing my mission. He does not, however, know that talking about them loudly in a crowded pub is liable to lead to trouble with the authorities. Though he learns that quite quickly, and I get arrested as an accessory to mentioning forbidden topics.

I am taken for interrogation, and have my mind probed by a glowing stone. There's a Willpower check here, which makes me aware of two things. 1) I've evidently found one of the most painless routes to this point, as I still have more than 10 points above the target WP (and would be comfortably in the safe zone even if I'd started with the lowest possible score). 2) Someone on the authorial/editorial front wasn't paying attention, as there are sections to turn to for scores below 15 and above 15, but nothing for if I'd somehow wound up smack on 15. Not a problem right now, given point 1, but a flaw none the less.

My magical abilities are detected, so I must do something to prevent Mother Magri the seer from learning my origins. Attack is said to be the best form of defence, so I use Sorcery against her stone, but don't put enough power into it. A long, exhausting, and mutually fruitless struggle ensues, only ending when I go into a kind of protective trance. Dumped in a dungeon until fit for another session with the mind probe, I am reunited with Shan. Even though we were arrested together, it's apparently only now that he realises I was captured too. What was he drinking?

Not that the guards who arrested me can have been that clear-headed, either. Okay, so they took my Magician's Staff and my backpack, but let me keep everything else. Including my alchemist's Herb Pouch. Mind you, the lack of backpack is a little problematic. For the book. The thing is, there's a third prisoner in the cell. A dying man who used to serve the people who brought me up. And I have the option of easing his suffering with a certain potion, if I have it. Which I do, only it's a backpack item, so I don't have it on me, and unless there's some way of winding up in the cell without getting my stuff confiscated, there's no possible way I could have the potion on me, so what's the point of asking me if I have it?

So he dies. Breakfast is served by a young girl, who holds some unpleasant attitudes. I chat with her anyway because I remember that she has an important part to play in plot yet to come, and she's sufficiently not keen on the idea of my being tortured to add a vitamin supplement to my food. For no very good reason I spend the rest of the day thinking about escape, and only at nightfall do I get to take action. Pick a Power, any Power. Having sneered at the guards for letting me keep my Alchemist stuff, I feel I should use it. Except that I'm missing one crucial ingredient on account of not having taken the right sidetrack. Choose again.

Do I blast the door with Sorcery? Mess with a jailer's mind using Enchantment? Use Prophecy to find out how I'm going to escape (assuming such timey-wimey shenanigans are permissible)? Or Evoke the vengeful spirits of everyone who's ever died here and prove myself little better than those I oppose?

With Enchantment I convince the jailer that the cell is on fire, and he lets us out. Attack him while he's distracted, or flee? I'm unarmed, so fighting seems unwise.

I'm a regular at the forums at rpg.net, which has a number of threads dedicated to playing through old and (usually) OOP gamebooks, with a group of players voting on what to do whenever a choice comes up. These group playthroughs have spawned an annoying meme: always turn left. Any time a choice of direction comes up, a number of participants will insist on going left, some even if there are clear indications that going a different way would be much more sensible. And this is the book that started it all off. At some point during the jailbreak, their Grey Star was warned to go left at every junction on the way out. The circumstances weren't completely identical to mine, as they had just summoned up a host of angry wraiths to wreak revenge on the jailers, and I have (so far) managed to avoid doing that, but nevertheless, I suspect that this time I will have to go along with the Sinistral Deverites, and turn left here. Oh, and sorry to disappoint anyone interested in reading that playthrough, but it's no longer accessible for legal reasons. Yes, the 'always turn left' thread had to be deleted owing to a lack of rights.

You know what's to the left of my cell? The entrance to the Darkling Room, a zone of psychic horribleness built on a multitude of corpses, where I would have been taken if I'd hung around waiting to get tortured. Yes, taking the advice that is this book's legacy to gamebook culture has led me to the exact place I least wanted to go.

Psychic combat against the powers of the Darkling Room is conducted like physical combat, except that instead of Combat Skill, I use the sum total of my Willpower and Endurance. Which is all for the good initially, at least, as (22+18) is a lot higher than 14, but as the combat system makes it possible to take damage even when winning a round, unless I win quickly, my mental Combat Skill is going to go down over the course of the battle, so I'll be likely to take more damage and have my CS drop even further. I believe this is what is known as a Death Spiral.

I get lucky. The damage taken in the first round is just low enough not to affect the Combat Ratio, and in the second round I manage to inflict an Instant Death, but that had the potential to get nasty. Shan and I flee down a corridor, with no clear idea of where to go, and then we're confronted by someone. It's Tanith, the girl who brought us food, and she has my confiscated equipment and claims to be looking for me. Being a Doctor Who fan, I am reminded of the cliffhanger to episode 2 of The Pirate Planet. Especially as Tanith wants to help, not hinder, and in mere moments the three of us are heading through a secret tunnel towards freedom. Yes, I have managed to escape without having to let loose countless malicious spectral entities, which puts me one up on the rpg.net mob.

As we hurry on our way, it becomes apparent that my companions don't get on well with each other. We take shelter in a forest, and it again becomes apparent that the people responsible for this book chose not to pick Checking for Consistency when selecting their Editorial Skills. I started the adventure with four Meals. I had to eat two of them while crossing the sea. I have had no opportunity to acquire replacements. Here I am informed that I must now eat a Meal (or lose Endurance) and give my remaining two to Shan and Tanith. Two plus one plus two is...

(a chandelier crashes to the floor in the background)

Anyway, knowing what the future holds for the three of us, I do not intend to starve while my not-going-to-make-it-to-the-end-of-the-book allies stuff their faces. They can share my remaining one Meal, on the grounds that Grey Star followed the 'You must eat' directive before reading on and finding out that he was expected to feed everyone.

In the morning we must carry on, and it is at this point that my not knowing where to find the lost tribe I seek (well, they wouldn't be lost if I knew where they were) becomes problematic. Shan advises going south, while Tanith suggests consulting with a sage to the north. On the grounds that the sage may give me some adventuring paraphernalia, I decide to pay him a visit.

Food is not an issue over the course of the next few days, as Tanith is able to charm the birds out of the trees and into Shan's saucepan. As we draw near to the sage's territory, winged apes swoop towards us. Shan impersonates Admiral Ackbar, but Tanith says we have nothing to fear. I think this looks bad for the apes. No, apparently they serve the sage, and wish to guide us. Shan finds this a bit too Lando for his liking, but I'm pretty sure it's not yet time for Tanith's sudden but inevitable betrayal, and follow them.

A wise choice. We meet the sage, who effectively says, "Yeah, the lost tribe is where Shan thought. Also, I have pressies for you." So everybody gets to go, "I told you so!" The long trek back south gives me time to recover from my ordeal, and prompts more petty quibbling. Firstly, as we go through the forest again, I am told that 'this time' we encounter no enemy patrols. As opposed to the 0 enemy patrols we encountered on our previous journey through the forest, right? Secondly, Willpower, unlike Endurance, has no cap, so I can claim the whole of the Willpower bonus offered here, even though it takes me beyond my starting score. But the text says to 'restore' Willpower, and restore means 'return to a former condition', so once I go above 27, I'm not restoring but gaining or adding. Thirdly, if you're making a bonus equal to half of a current score, you should point out whether fractions round up or down.

Sounds of combat draw our attention to a half-dozen paladin-types defending a wagon from at least a score of the bad guys. Time to help even the odds a little. Reinforcements for the villains turn up, armed with crossbows. Charging a man with a crossbow is probably a bad idea in a gamebook, so I'm going to have to spend some Willpower. Another illusion might do the trick... And one friendly fire incident later, only ten enemy troops remain. Now I'll risk physical combat.

Ouch! No, not damage taken in battle. Tanith just fell through a gap between paragraphs. She's at my side at the start of the section, but in the time it takes me to utter six syllables, she's vanished. Maybe if I'd been less verbose, she wouldn't have had time to slope off.

OUCH! Still haven't lost any Endurance, but this fight has not been thought through. I don't even want to get into what a mess this is. The only way it can remotely make sense is if, the moment Shan and I burst from cover, the Knights we're trying to help stop fighting, get out the popcorn, and watch, commentating like Waldorf and Stadtler, as the last of their assailants turn on us. Absolutely atrociously designed encounter.

You know what? Forget it. I'm not going to bother playing through Grey Star's getting carved into little bits because Page and Dever never thought to consider that the prior elimination of half of the enemy combatants might just possibly influence the flow of battle. Book back on shelf. Game over, hero killed by authorial ineptitude.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Walk Like an Egyptian

Time to have a go at a gamebook I've never played before. This time round I'm going for something from Herbie Brennan's not-that-imaginatively-titled Adventure Game Books series. In gamebook circles, Brennan's probably better known for Grail Quest and Sagas of the Demonspawn, both of which I mean to try here at some point, but I have at least half a dozen more gamebooks by him.

AGB is a slightly unusual series, in that it's larger in French than English. Four books were written, all were translated, but only the first two were published over here, while France got the lot. And better titles. I only have the two English ones, and I shall be starting with Egyptian Quest (Le trésor des pharaons, i.e. Treasure of the Pharaohs). I know the listing at Demian Katz's as-near-definitive-as-you-can-get gamebook web page says it's the second in the series, but the picture of the two UK AGBs inside the back cover shows EQ first, and I'm going with what that implies.

No reminiscing this time round, since there's not a lot to say beyond 'I got it on eBay' and 'a previous owner's name and school have been written in ink on the first page, so someone in Jersey has earned my enmity'.

Oddly, the book opens with a longer and more lurid blurb than the one on the back cover. Then there's a bit that says the rules are at the back. A quick check reveals them to be partly a simplified version of the basic Grail Quest rules, plus a hint of Brennan's Monster Horrorshow RPG. A brief glossary follows the rules, because these are edumacational gamebooks, but my familiarity with Brennan's sense of humour reassures me that there's still a fair chance of finding some fun in here.

Character generation consists of rolling up Life Points, which are generated by rolling 3d6, picking the highest and multiplying by 10. I roll 6, 5 and 1, so that's 60 LP.

So I'm a schoolboy on a trip to the British Museum, looking at assorted Egyptian exhibits and waiting for the coast to become clear. Assorted Egyptian deities are briefly described, perhaps just to inform me, or maybe to set up tests of knowledge later on. Rather a nice description of the sarcophagus "covered not only in hieroglyphs, but in Japanese tourists."

While waiting for the crowds to move on, I have the choice of checking out the Rosetta Stone or the Anubis Relief, and it's not a difficult choice, because it's not only gamebooks that can teach you things. Thanks to a certain Doctor Who novel, I know what the Rosetta Stone is, and can see how it might prove ever so slightly invaluable when, as might be predicted even if it weren't mentioned in the inner blurb, I'm going to wind up taking a trip to Ancient Egypt.

Yup, just got myself a simplified guide to translating hieroglyphs. Also got proof that I'm not like my real self was back in my schooldays, as gamebook-me is utterly bored by the history of the stone, and only cares about the 'Hieroglyphs for Beginners' bit. Regardless, I must now return to section 1 and, presumably, investigate Anubis. Which, to be honest, schoolboy-me would probably have done first, on account of not having yet learned about the Rosetta Stone, but knowing that Anubis was to do with the nastier side of Egyptian myth and thinking that kind of thing cool.

And while I'm looking at Anubis, everyone else leaves, so I can do what I've been waiting for an opportunity to do - hide inside the sarcophagus. Because a) for some reason the intended occupant was never buried in it, b) a fellow pupil made a bet that I wouldn't spend the night hiding in it, and c) I am a gamebook character, and recognise that sometimes I have to do insanely stupid things to make the plot happen.

The sarcophagus bears a warning, giving me a chance to reconsider and miss the adventure, and there's also an optional educational aside about what befell the people who opened Tutankhamun's tomb. Which boils down to 'Lots of them died. So did a pet canary.' Still, checking that out does lead to the option of finding out a bit more about the Pharaoh for whom the sarcophagus was intended, so I'll do that next. And that's quite a hefty info-dump. This book isn't long enough for the dates mentioned to double as section numbers, though. Still, notes made in case it matters.

Digressions over, I enter the sarcophagus, doze off, and have to roll 1d6. And the Brennan tradition of having a section just for character death continues, though at this point I can only get there by failing to roll 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6. Good thing I'm not using a Backgammon die, eh?

So I wake to find either that the warning was true or that the boy who bet against me has gone to considerable lengths to rob me of my victory, because I'm now in a sunlit courtyard between pillars carved to resemble Osiris. Steps ahead of me, a gate behind me. Forwards, I think.

I enter a building that contains little of note beyond what I take to be a large stone sentry box, its doors secured with string. Well, let's see what horrors await me inside it... Just a human-sized statue of Isis. Which does not animate. But three shaven-headed men come in and yell at me 'in a strangely archaic tongue which, somehow, [I] understand perfectly'. I appear to be in trouble for trespassing in a temple, and my not being a skinhead causes the men to doubt my hurried claim to be a visiting priest. I am asked to accompany them, and opt not to resist arrest as I'd rather not try out the combat rules for the first time in a three-against-one situation.

As they escort me 'to see God', I have the option of trying to escape by making an 'Absolutely Anything Roll', which has a 1/36 chance of proving lethal, a 1/6 chance of proving successful, a 5/9 chance of allowing me one reroll, and you can work out the odds of a straight fail yourself if you care. I decide to give it a go, and get a reroll followed by a success. So I get away. Whether or not that turns out to be a smart thing to do, I cannot yet tell.

I flee to a market place, where a jeweller offers me a magic ring if I run an errand for him. Sounds like a good deal to me. Especially as declining involves being ruder than strictly necessary, which looks to me like just asking for trouble.

The ring has 12 charges, though I'm not sure what it actually does yet. And to earn it, I just have to deliver something to the address written on the package. Good thing I learned how to read hieroglyphs, eh? But Brennan's in a lenient mood, and gives the option of cheating by turning to the section where the instructions may be found. Oh, and I have the option to ask what the ring does before I go. Hmm, random. Literally. I'll say more when or if I use it.

While Brennanglyphs obviously aren't the same as real hieroglyphs, they're slightly more realistic than most gamebook non-standard alphabets, as many of the symbols correspond to more than one letter, so interpretation is required as well as standard decryption. The package could be OLJNT, but it's more likely to be URGENT. And it needs delivering to the local undertaker and embalmer, who offers me a chance to watch the mummification of the ultimate recipient. Oh, why not?

It's another educational tangent, not only explaining methods but also pointing out unusual (to a modern reader) customs. There's a bit of light mockery of the Ancient Egyptians' beliefs, which probably constitutes badwrongfun. And then I have to get less than 12 on 2d6, or die of squeamishness.

But I survive long enough to be recognised by two guards. Fighting still looks inadvisable, even taking the ring into account, so I quietly accompany them to the deity. Unsurprisingly, this turns out to be the Pharaoh. Surprisingly, he knows I'm from the future. And he wants to shake my hand, though his musclebound minders have warned me not to touch him on pain of death. Decisions, decisions...

Better not to displease royalty, I think, and it does work out all right. For values of 'all right' that include being escorted into a chamber containing a live lion. Corectly guessing the lion to be a pet, I avoid making a bit of a faux pas, and learn that it's called Archimedes. And the Pharaoh is aware of the anachronism. He quotes 19th-20th century Egyptologist Sir Wallis Budge at me, and explains that the sarcophagus is a time machine. While, in Grail Quest style, it's shifted my consciousness into a 4th century BC Egyptian's body (which is supposed to explain how I understand the language), it has also (more than slightly bizarrely) clothed the host body in what I was wearing when I entered the sarcophagus. Clothes that have a museum pamphlet on Egyptian history in one of the pockets. Which is potentially ominous given that the Pharaoh set all this up to summon someone from the 20th century to help him defeat the Persians. The rules section of the book is lamentably inadequate as regards the possibility and advisability of changing established history, so I'm none too sure how to behave here. Still, angering someone who can have me executed on a whim is obviously risky, whereas there are at least three ways interfering with the past could go: I prevent myself from existing (not good), I return to an altered future (could be good or bad), or I don't actually make any difference (acceptable). So interfering appears more survivable from where I'm sitting.

It turns out that he wants me to find assorted weapons and artefacts that have been stashed in a pyramid in Giza, conveniently alongside the only thing that can help me return to my own time. He gives me a pigeon for notifying him of success (which I put in my pocket!) and teaches me an incantation to transport me to the pyramid. In hieroglyphs, of course, which is probably what allows Brennan to get away with slipping the word 'ess-ee-ex' into a kids' gamebook (I'm spelling it out like that to reduce the risk of becoming a target for some iffy Google searches like Galactrix's blog did). And if you're wondering why the word is there, it's followed by the word 'shun', so when pronounced aloud, it sounds like 'section'. Yes, the rest of the incantation is similarly groansome.

All right, Giza. A classic Brennan 'map with section numbers for all the locations on it' set-up. I think I'll start with the non-pyramid stuff, and then work my way through the pyramids in ascending order of size.

First I visit what turns out to be a cluster of tombs with a name that lends itself to juvenile humour. Further investigation would require me to fight three hostile mummies, so I think I'll look for a weapon and, if successful, return to discover what they're so keen for me not to find. Next I check out a couple of pits, where I could obtain a potentially useful item in exchange for something I don't have. More of those tombs follow, one of them with a shiny electrum ankh on display. And protected by a potentially lethal curse, as I discover when I try to 'borrow' it. But I suffer a lesser consequence, namely being teleported back to the pits. Hmm. Might come back later if I see signs that the benefits of owning the ankh outweigh the risk of being killed.

Proceeding to what the map indicates to be an empty patch of ground by a road, I am a little surprised to find myself in front of the Sphinx. A passer-by info-dumps the legend about an entrance to secret chambers between the paws, so I decide to have a look. Digging leads to a randomised 'stuff happens' table. This time I find an amethyst rod which will render unconscious two foes. Time to see what those mummies were guarding.

Well, the first two aren't worth wasting the powers of the rod on, and the worst thing about the third is his 'rip my head off on a double 6' ability. Even so, I lose almost half my Life in the fight, so I risk sleeping. No chance of wacky dream sequences as in Grail Quest, but it could heal me, harm me, or do nothing. This time it's harmful, bringing me down to exactly half my starting Life. And it turns out that the rest wasn't even necessary, as the mummies' loot includes an pill that can repeatedly heal 2d6 Life provided I'm not put off by the way it becomes reusable. And a kills-with-one-successful-blow dagger. There must be some seriously tough opponents up ahead. Especially as Isis turns up to give me an item that could take out three separate groups of enemies. Or maybe I'm supposed to be hoarding these for the Pharaoh.

In the ruins of a temple I find a Dibbler-type offering a variety of unwanted services, and have the option of buying a 'magical' talisman from him. For some reason, despite having recognised an ankh as an ankh earlier on, this time I think one of the talismans resembles a stick-figure man with no legs. Not having any money, and being unwilling to barter any of what I do have, I must pass up the opportunity to find out whether or not the talismans are the rip-offs they appear to be.

I was told that the vendor looked 'vaguely familiar', and the same happens with the next stranger I encounter. I hope this is going somewhere other than a The Wizard of Oz-style ending. This chap has a spare statue of Bastet, and will only exchange it for an electrum ankh. Maybe he looks a bit like Noel Edmonds. I'll continue to search around for a bit, hoping to find an acceptable ankh that doesn't have a 1/3 chance of killing me.

The only remaining external location is another ruined temple, where I come into possession of a Rosetta Stone-alike that can help me translate a different kind of hieroglyph. I am mildly disappointed that the 'standard' hieroglyphs on it read, 'The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog' rather than some more thematically appropriate pangram. Slightly more annoyed that it says 'jumped' rather than 'jumps', thereby denying me one rather important letter. Okay, so when I find a message in the second code, I can deduce that an unfamiliar character is 's' because there's not much else it could be, but still...

So, I must enter a pyramid, or try and get the ankh so I can get the Bastet so I can get the other item. Try the smallest pyramid, I think. No obvious entrances, so I search for a way in, and either this pyramid is a complete waste of time, or I'm missing some textual clue like the infamous "You find yourself...".

If I ignored the pyramids' actual names and distinguished the three in the style of the bears encountered by Goldilocks, I'd now be checking out the Mummy Pyramid. Sometimes even I hate my punning ways.

Anyway, a 'familiar-looking' man offers me a map of all the secret entrances to the pyramid, and wants my shoes in return. Two things occur to me. Firstly, it might be the same man each time, and he's always described as looking familiar because Brennan had no way of knowing which encounter with the pest I'd have first. Secondly, if the pyramid has no secret entrances, the swindler could trade me a blank page for my shoes and would technically be in the right vis á vis consumer rights. Sticking with my 'Ancient Egyptian Noel Edmonds' theory, I tell him, "No deal!"

Seems I've misjudged him, as he gives away several secrets about the hidden entrances to try and prove his authenticity, and when I tell him to go away, he punches me in the face. Doing less damage than I'd take walking around with no shoes for the rest of the adventure, but even so, that's not very nice. Still, his overenthusiastic sales pitch has enabled me to figure out how to get into the pyramid. Think I'll try the ground level entrance first.

Befor long I find a trapdoor, and investigating it causes me to fall into an escape-proof pit. My pill could, theoretically, keep me from starving, but that'd just mean eventually dying of boredom or old age. However I look at it, I'm off to section 13. Not one of Brennan's more entertaining 'you are dead' sections, alas.

Arbitrary Instant Death sections are rarely fun, though, and that one certainly wasn't, but overall I enjoyed the adventure. It certainly merits a replay at some later date.

Friday, 20 July 2012

At Least I Survived the Maze at Longleat

Time to start what must be at least my third attempt at playing through the whole Fighting Fantasy series in order.

The first time I encountered a copy of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, it was being auctioned by a teacher to raise funds for something. I was one of the bidders, and before long there was only one other person bidding against me, and the price kept creeping up, and up... And then the other guy named a sum higher than the cover price of the book and, realising I'd be able to get a brand new copy for less in town, I let him win. And borrowed the book off him.

I had no dice handy, and wasn't bothered about the rules anyway. By sheer chance, I happened to take the correct turning at both of the junctions where going the wrong way would have guaranteed failure. So how come I didn't succeed at my first readthrough? Curiosity. I got as far as the fight with the Ghoul, and the paragraph detailing it stated which section to turn to if my character got paralysed. As I wasn't using dice, there was no way I could actually lose the fight, but I wanted to know what happened in that section. After all, this was a book for kids, and there was no way that a kids' book would have anything really bad happen to the main character (especially one which explicitly identified the reader as the hero). So I turned to that section, and read an account of the Ghoul celebrating its victory and then beginning to feed on me. Game over. Mind-blowing stuff for this eleven-year-old. How could I not be hooked on the books after that?

Today I have something of a problem. The thing is, I know this book. I know where to find the essential keys, I know the loophole in the rules which gives me a chance of success even if I roll up the weakest character imaginable, I even know the correct path through the maze thanks to having mapped it more times than can be entirely healthy. So the outcome is, if not quite a foregone conclusion (the random factor allowing for surprises), at least highly predictable. And while I could do with a win to balance out my shameful two-section-long adventure in T&T-land, an easy victory may not make for the most entertaining reading. Especially in a book that's already been covered by pretty much every other gamebook blogger there is.

I briefly contemplated playing the alternate version of the adventure, published in issues 1-2 of Warlock magazine, which relocates half the keys, changes the winning combination, and, at the climax, plays delightfully nasty mind-games with readers who can remember section numbers. Depending on my mood, I might even have a go at that variant between Kharé - Cityport of Traps and Scorpion Swamp, as that's when the magazine came out. But right now, I should play the proper version. The one that is Fighting Fantasy book 1 whether we're talking Puffin, Wizard or Wizard redux.

So what's my character like?
Skill 7 (a good chance to put the 'any player, no matter how weak on initial dice rolls, should be able to get through fairly easily' claim to the test)
Stamina 20
Luck 9
I'd better choose the Potion of Strength, as (hello, Mister Loophole) that can restore me to full Stamina even in the middle of a fight. Twice.

It's quite appropriate that the title of this adventure mentions a mountain. After all, George Mallory justified his intention to climb Everest with the statement, "Because it's there," and that phrase pretty much sums up our hero's motivation for seeking out the eponymous Warlock with the intent of killing him and taking his stuff. There's a vague attempt at making out that this is acceptable because the Warlock hasn't been very nice to other people who tried to slice him into little bits and loot his home, but really, can you blame him? Well, I need a better motivation for this. So my character is an inspector who works for the Sinister Magic-Users' Guild, here to carry out a check for health and safety violations, unsuitable working practices, and anything else that can be used to justify capital punishment and a fine equal to 100% of his financial holdings.

Just past the first junction, the Warlock gets his first black mark. A guard sleeping on duty. From the sound of it, the relief guard is also napping, but that's permissible, so I pass on to the second door, and in the room beyond, I encounter offence 2, which could be noted under cruelty to animals or H&S. Either way, live snakes should not be left lying around in small wooden boxes. Particularly not boxes that are also being used to store keys.

There are more guards in the next room, but they're drunk. By the time I've finished with them, they're dead drunk, if you will permit a sub-Arnie post-kill pun. The room also contains a book that should clearly have been filed somewhere else, dealing as it does with protective measures to be taken when handling Dragons.

I proceed to a room where the Orc Chieftain is carrying out disciplinary measures against his servant. Observing certain flaws in his technique, I demonstrate a more effective method of employing brute force. The treasure chest in the room has a flimsy lock, and a regrettable tendency to fire poisoned darts at inspectors checking up on how secure it is. This is clearly not up to standard, so I remove the gold and potion contained within it and place them into my backpack until a more suitable storage unit can be found.

At the other end of the corridor I find yet more badly-trained Orcs. Initially too preoccupied with their food to notice the presence of an inspector in their midst, they compound their error by attacking one at a time once I have drawn their attention. The resultant fight does, alas, leave them too dead to explain who is responsible for the bow and silver arrow that have been left here rather than put in the armoury where they belong.

The next door I encounter is locked. Quite rightly, as it turns out, as this room is being used as a cell for an unsuccessful adventurer, but owing to a lack of clear labelling, I have to break the door down in order to learn this. The prisoner is obviously not to blame for this, so I schedule a tribunal to resolve the matter, and allow the man to leave provided he returns to give testimony at the appropriate time.

Having learned my lesson, I ignore the next locked door, and proceed to check out the torture chamber. The methods being employed here are obviously unsuitable for extracting pertinent information, as they kill the subject far too quickly, and I illustrate this problem to the torturers by using the technique on them. They also lose points for not keeping cheese in a suitably refrigerated environment.

A portcullis with booby-trapped controls restricts access to deeper regions of the complex. This would be commendable, but for the lax data security which enabled the prisoner to learn of the correct way to bypass the trap. Naturally he told me of this, and I test the accuracy of the information he was allowed to discover, gaining confirmation that this is a serious breach.

The next noteworthy feature I discover is an Iron Cyclops with a jewelled eye. Checking that the jewel is properly secured in its mounting causes the statue to animate and attack me. Regrettably, owing to a string of bad rolls, not even the Potion of Strength suffices to keep me alive until this malfunction can be put to rights, as a result of which my report remains incomplete and unfiled.

Oh, well, at least I didn't wind up blubbing on account of only having two keys.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

The Bare Essentials

One aspect of my FF walkthroughs that proved popular was my reminiscing about how I originally acquired the books, and what happened when I first played them. Since people liked these little bursts of nostalgia, and as there's a good chance that this will prove to be a very short adventure, I shall start with a meander back along memory lane.

I was part of the way through my A-levels, and in the early stages of deciding where I wanted to go to university. One of the relatively few places that actually offered the course I wanted to do was Bristol University, so when they had an open day I went out there to check it out. And while wandering around the city, I found a shop called Forever People, which sold all kinds of sci-fi and fantasy stuff. Wonderful place. The atmosphere at the university didn't appeal so much, though, and I the charms of the shop were not sufficient to persuade me to choose to study there anyway. But when British Rail did some special offer on fares a little while later, I opted to visit Bristol just to go to that shop again. And it was on my second (and final) visit to Forever People that I found and bought a copy of Naked Doom and Deathtrap Equalizer.

That was just one book. During the gamebook boom of the mid-eighties, Corgi Books jumped onto the bandwagon by reprinting 11 of the T&T solos that came out in the late seventies. Two to a book in most instances, as they were fairly slim. I'd acquired one other book in the collection at an earlier date, but I'll say more about that at the appropriate time.

I looked through the book on the train home afterwards. Didn't play it properly because I had no dice on me. Even if I had, I probably still wouldn't have bothered, what with character creation involving rolling 3d6 seven times. And that's as much as I can remember of my first time at ND.

The story doesn't end there, though. The following year, a local second-hand book/comic/memorabilia shop got in a batch of solos in their original format, published by Flying Buffalo. They were being sold as a job lot, and the presence of several titles never issued by Corgi convinced me to get the lot despite my already having some of the titles in there, including both ND and DE. Both of which turned out to have significant differences from the Corgi editions, as a consequence of which I eventually wound up tracking down FB variants of all the solos I had in Corgi, to find out what else had been changed.

Most of the differences concerned the removal or toning-down of 'adult' content. I'll say more about that at a later date. But the Corgi ND included several sections absent from the FB edition. As far as I can tell, they were added to the text at some point between the fourth printing (which is the one I own) and the last pre-Corgi edition. They were certainly there by the time 17th solo, Gamesmen of Kasar came out, because another FB job lot, this one on eBay, netted me a reprint of ND that was published at around the same time as GoK, and that one does contain the missing sections. So this is the only T&T solo of which I own three copies.

It was the fourth to be published, and the third one I attempted, which might prompt some people to ask why I'm playing it first. The answer's quite simple. T&T characters can (with some restrictions) be carried across from one adventure to another, and at the start of this one, my character irretrievably loses all his equipment. So rather than accumulate treasure and nifty special weapons in the first few books and then be deprived of it here, I'm starting with nothing (and consequently getting to skip the 'basic equipment acquisition' phase of character creation).

The premise is that my character has been caught breaking the law, and gets to choose between death by torture or a visit to the Royal Khazan Gauntlet of Criminal Retribution and Rehabilitation. This is a trap-packed dungeon, designed as a training ground for adventurers, but too lethal, so rather than have it be a complete waste of money, the authorities turned it into a criminal disposal system.

So let's take a look at the man who will be entering the dungeon today.
Strength: 13 (slightly above average, providing a small bonus in combat)
Intelligence: 9 (low average, not too big a deal here)
Luck: 11 (medium average, nothing special)
Constitution: 9 (low average, significantly reduces the chances of my getting past the first encounter)
Dexterity: 14 (above average, another combat bonus, and a slight improvement in my chances)
Charisma: 13 (slightly above average, but of negligible relevance to this adventure)
Speed: 10 (medium average, almost never matters in solos, but this is one exception)
So slightly above average overall, but probably doomed.

Why doomed? Because two of the guards who escort me to the dungeon ready arrows with ominously stained tips, and as the captain tells me to run, they take aim and fire. And drat it, the saving rolls I need to make to avoid being hit aren't on Dex as I thought, but on Luck and Speed, neither of which are that impressive.

I fail the Luck roll by 4. A string of doubles (doubles are good for you) enables me to beat the Speed roll by 22. But that failed roll means that one of the arrows hits me, costing me 10 points of Con. And I only had 9 to start with, so my adventure comes to an abrupt end.

Well, I was right when I said this might not take long. One for the 'replay at some later date' pile, then.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Here Comes Another One

As the title may suggest, I'm something of a gamebook fan, and since accounts of attempts at gamebooks seem quite popular at the moment (see Fighting Dantasy, Gamebook Geek, Turn to 400, May Your Stamina Never Fail and Fight Your Fantasy, for example), I've decided to join in with the fun.

If 'join in' is the right way to put it, as I've been posting playthroughs of Fighting Fantasy adventures at the unofficial forum since 2009. But I'm up to date with that series now. Except for the mini-adventure in the most recent Fighting Fantazine, and since I wrote that one, writing a walkthrough of it would be something of a giveaway.

Still, having spent a significant amount of time over the past few years recounting my gamebook-playing experiences, I felt like doing some more. So I'll be replaying the lot.

That's not all, though, because I own well over 200 gamebooks, some of which I haven't yet actually got around to playing. Consequently, I shall be alternating between FF and the likes of Tunnels & Trolls, Lone Wolf, Proteus, Grail Quest and at least a dozen other series.

Most of the time I will be playing strictly by the rules, even in the knowledge that that may make for extremely short entries on some titles.

That's the introductory waffle over and done with. Some time soon I shall start on the interesting stuff, commencing with a T&T solo that will remain nameless for the moment, as its title may well attract the wrong kind of attention from search engines.