Friday, 30 November 2012

My Dreams of Conquest

Next up on my gamebook blogging schedule is another of Sutherland and Farrell's Double Game series. I was briefly tempted to swap it for something else, as I've only just endured one of Mr. Sutherland's collaborations. Still, I didn't hate the first The Glade of Dreams book when I played it, and while I've sometimes rearranged the schedule for thematic reasons, putting off a book because I played (and disliked) something by one of the co-writers two days ago would be a bit pathetic.

I'm not entirely sure where I got my copy of Issel - Warrior King, though a vague memory hints that it might have been from the charity shop along Newland Avenue that puts boxes of books outside when the weather permits (and sometimes even when it doesn't). This will be my first attempt at it.

Character generation is much the same as in Darian - Master Magician, except that it's Magic rather than Swordplay that costs double points. Someone has slipped up somewhere, as the rules claim that there aren't as many spells available to me as there are to Darian, but I'm presented with a list identical to the one in the companion book, and cannot see anything to indicate that any off those spells are off-limits to me (though getting the lot would cost 40% of my character creation points, and if I were that desperate to play a wizard, I should be attempting the other book). As my Magic attribute may be used for resisting hostile spells, it would be unwise to take too low a score in it, so I've gone for

Strength: 10
Agility: 9
Luck: 9
Swordsmanship: 10
Magic: 6
Which means that I can, if necessary, cast Sense Danger (and where was the option for Darian to do that before investigating the pit that Instant Deathed him?) and Fire Hand.

According to my grandmother, the only relative I ever knew, I am descended from an ancient line of Kings. The only 'evidence' I have to back this up is a goblet bearing the Great Seal of Franzos, wrapped in a bit of ermine. Franzos is currently ruled over by the tyrannical King Theo and, lacking armies, political clout, sufficient wealth to hire mercenaries, or any other conventional means of replacing him on the throne, I've resorted to seeking the eponymous glade in the hope that its wish-fulfilling properties will do the job.

A storm is coming to an end. Which is odd, as this is supposed to be happening at the same time as Darian's adventures, and I'm on the same side of the forest where he started, but there was no mention of rain in the other book. Maybe there's some multiversal stuff going on, and I'm in a different reality from him until I enter the forest.

Anyway, in I go, and before long I find a trail, which I ignore in favour of heading deeper into the forest. Something big starts smashing its way towards me, and I opt not to confront it (getting a sense of déjà vu here). And it is the same giant worm that Darian saw, and my expertise with the sword would have done little against it, so that was a wise choice.

Night approaches, and I decide to make camp up a tree rather than on the ground. My Agility suffices to keep me from falling, and I secure myself well before settling down to sleep. But not so well that I can't quickly go on the defensive when a black panther takes an interest in me. I kill it, but take a couple of wounds in the fight. Apparently I've missed something, as I could use a Healing Potion here if I had one, but I don't so I can't. In any case, natural healing takes care of half the damage.

In the morning I set off again. My hackles rise, I scent something strange, and I can cast Sense Danger if I want. I'm not overly keen on the odds of it working, so I take a chance on just trusting my instincts. A zombie stabs me in the leg with a trident. It also carries a net, leading me to wonder how a gladiator wound up (un)dead here. Fleeing a foe with a net wouldn't be that clever even if I didn't have an injured leg, so I just fight it. It's not very adept when not sneaking up on people, and I hack it into enough pieces that, while it hasn't stopped moving, it is no longer in a position to inconvenience me.

There's a map in a pouch on the zombie's belt. There are six landmarks indicated on it, one of them the glade. Also shown are the wind and the sun, the latter similar to, but more cheerful-looking than, the one artist John Blanche used as a between-paragraphs image in Steve Jackson's Sorcery! The zombie's flesh vanishes, and somehow its skeleton comes back together, though it just lies there rather than making any hostile moves.

I climb a tree to see if I can spot any of the landmarks from the map, and spot what could be one of them about three miles away. A trail leads in that direction, so I follow it, reaching.the same Obelisk that Darian found. For real-life personal reasons, its inscription is that bit more depressing today than it was in September.

Following a well-worn track that leads from the clearing, I reach a village surrounded by a palisade. A disembodied voice warns me not to enter. I ask why, and am told that it's full of disfigured unsuccessful Seekers, who would kill me to spare me their fate. The owner of the voice admits to being one of the villagers (though obviously a less militant one), and urges me to go home rather than risk being twisted like he and his fellows have. I don't take that advice, but I do stay out of the village.

After a bit, I find a stream, with a boat tied up next to it. What I can make out of the water's inhabitants dissuades me from entering the water, and I'm not convinced the boat is sound, so I walk along the bank. Two men in green with bows emerge from the trees, and I can make out more of their kind in the undergrowth. I try talking to them, and wound up led to the arboreal City of the Forest People.

Their leader questions me and, upon learning of my aim, asks what I would do about them if I became King: many of them are fugitives from justice. The book only offers two replies, and I'm not willing to offer a free pardon to everyone, so I'll just have to hope that saying I can make no promises won't result in a back full of arrows. He admires my honesty, and provides a couple of escorts to the Sphinx, which I must encounter if I want to reach the glade.

The Sphinx is the living kind, and promises to judge me fairly. It tells me it is the first guardian of the Glade of Dreams, and the second one makes it look like a mouse. I must provide a satisfactory answer to its question if I want to enter the glade and not get eaten. It's a 'prove yourself worthy'-type question, and I get the right answer, so the Sphinx allows me onto the trail leading to the glade.

The description of the glade makes it sound like the sort of place you'd see depicted in a book about Flower Fairies. Except that the dragon guarding it is more formidable than anything you'd find in such illustrations. The dragon greets me, mentions that my great-grandfather killed its brother, the last of its kind (surely the brother must have been the penultimate of its kind, as this one is still around), asks if I am brave and wise, and instructs me to look into its eyes. Folklore indicates this to be inadvisable, but I accept the challenge, and find myself staring at the dragon's eyelids: the instruction was a test of courage, and I passed.

I now have the right to dream, but am warned that if I die in my dream, the monster that killed me will take my place in the real world. Not that it particularly wants to be here, and it will subsequently roam the forest, vainly seeking a way back to the world of dreams, and endangering anyone else who comes looking for the glade, but it's too late to back out now...

Don't complain to me about spoilers - you've had over 20 years.

I sleep, and open my eyes to find myself in a much shabbier version of the glade. Something moves close by, so I investigate. On my way across the glade I touch an overly sticky and tough web, and as I try to break free, a man-headed spider (or a spider-bodied man) descends towards me. My combat-depleted Strength does not allow me to break free, so I must fight. Some seriously bad rolling soon leaves me dead, and Spidey trapped in the waking world to inconvenience other Seekers of the glade.

Well, apart from the zombie ambush (I should not need to rely on magic to notice an approaching corpse, especially when I can smell it and sense that something is not right), that wasn't a bad book. One I wouldn't mind playing again some time, though it'll probably be a while, as this blog takes up a good deal of the free time I could spend playing gamebooks.

Yes, I know.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Heading for Something Somewhere I've Never Been

There's not much to say about my personal history with part 2 of Sutherland and Hill's The Dark Usurper. I got the issue of White Dwarf that contained it from the same eBay seller who provided me with the preceding one, and completed the adventure on my first attempt. This playthrough is liable to wind up very much like my previous, no longer extant one (unless I die), as part 2 seems to follow a narrower path than part 1: choices tend to be either meaningless or obvious, and I used up my 'try something blatantly inadvisable just to see what happens' allowance when I decided to replay this adventure.

If last week's attempt at part 1 had not ended with my character bouncing off an exterior wall and experiencing authorial euthanasia while succumbing to the force of gravity, I would probably have succeeded in escaping from the castle. If so, I would have found my father's sword, ingeniously hidden in a well-lit hole in the ground. I might also have learned that the friend I'd left in charge while I was away had been overthrown and made a prisoner by Barnak the brigand. And the text went to some effort to ensure that I had my horse Aryl with me. Not sure why, as Aryl is smarter than I, and has run off between parts 1 and 2 so as not to have to appear in the adventure any more.

As the character I rolled up for part 1 died, it would be absurd to use him here, and this section of the adventure is ridiculous enough already, so I should roll up fresh stats.
Skill: 7
Stamina: 19
Luck: 8
Pretty dismal, but that shouldn't matter too much.

I wake in the forest near the castle, 'seemingly unaware of [my] regained freedom.' I think the first time I played this, my brain decided (in the interests of preserving some semblance of sanity) to pretend that that line had never actually passed through it. But I just had to replay TDU, didn't I, and this time round my psychological defences weren't able to protect me.

Anyway, I head for the road, and become aware that a couple of pumas are following me. I know from last time that they want to lead me to their owner, Asmund the sub-par sage advisor. And I suspect, based on other parts of the adventure, that if I don't follow them, some other contrivance will force me to meet him anyway, so I'll just go with the pumas and avoid the textual equivalent of being poked with pointed sticks by the authors.

Asmund, being a bit rubbish as wizards go, has been tied up by three goblins. His pumas, being a bit rubbish as big cats go, have sought me out to fight the goblins for them. The text, being a bit rubbish as gamebooks go, doesn't specify whether I'm fighting the goblins one at a time or simultaneously. I'll assume the latter, and use Jackson rules (FF never having standardised the procedure for fighting more than one opponent at the same time), because they're less hassle than the other variants. The fight doesn't go that well, but I survive and the goblins don't.

The choice of what to say after releasing Asmund is probably meaningless, so just for a little variety, I tell him of my troubles. He responds by saying that he knows much of the past and can see my future. But evidently not his own, or he'd have found some way of not getting tied up and jabbed with spears by goblins. He also invites me to his home, saying, "Perhaps I can teach you things to help you survive." If he can see my future, shouldn't he already know whether or not he'll be able to teach me anything useful?

I go with him rather than waste time finding out how Sutherland and Hill mean to herd recalcitrant players to Asmund's hut. Continuing to take the path of least resistance, I hand over the gem from the pommel of my sword, and after a night's rest and a meal, I get some new clothes, a lance, a shield, and a chance to learn some magic I'll never get a chance to use if I do what I'm supposed to. The lance also seems a bit useless now I have no horse, but I suspect that all the new equipment has only been provided to ensure that I actually look like the subject of the picture on the facing page. Who looks nothing like the character depicted in the illustrations for parts 1 and 3, but then, those pictures don't match the text so well.

In-story, the new gear makes me look like a prophesied hero, provided everyone's prepared to be a bit flexible in their interpretation of the atrocious verse: the pumas may be accompanying me, but they're not 'kin' (unless there's something Asmund isn't telling me about a particularly twisted branch of my family tree). Asmund tells me to go north to a town (which he doesn't bother to name) and meet up with an ally named Jorkell, so it's a bit odd that the text provides me with a choice of directions. Not going due north is sure to lead to some contrivance that forces me to go the way I was supposed to, and I'm not masochistic enough to want to read more paragraphs of this adventure than are strictly necessary, so I just head north.

Before nightfall I catch sight of lights in the distance, and the place name needlessly omitted from Asmund's directions is shoehorned into the text. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that the locations featured in this adventure are all part of the setting for a rôle-playing campaign the authors and their friends ran. Nothing wrong with that per se, but the place still has to be made interesting to any readers who weren't in that campaign: I get the impression that the revelation of the name is supposed to make me go, 'Oh, wow! It's Kari!' and think back to the tremendously thrilling and exciting thing that happened to the party there, which is a bit difficult when I wasn't part of the game.

More people know of this Kari than the one in Skeln.

The following day I reach the town, and head straight for the gate as the bright red cloak makes any attempt at stealth a bit pointless. The liberation of Kari is pretty undramatic: I walk past the guards, make a speech that wouldn't sound out of place in a Party Political Broadcast, hand Jorkell a gem fragment that disperses the imperceptible effect of Barnak's never-mentioned-before-or-again sorcery, and play no part in the butchering of Barnak's minions.

Jorkell then explains that he vas only obeyink orders because otherwise Barnak would have stationed some of his men here, and I do not have the option of considering that a flimsy excuse for collaboration and throwing him to mob justice. Mind you, he does provide me with a horse so that he can show me the extent of Barnak's control. Then, not having thought things out beyond the end of the sentence, he asks me where we should go. I manage to identify the quickest route to the unavoidable battle scene, avoiding the side trip to some other place I've never heard of before.

We have fifty men with us, and are at the top of a hill. Approximately two hundred goblins surround us. There are three tactical approaches open to me, two of them only slightly more sensible than 'see how far you can ram the lance through your head'. The rules governing mass battle are awkwardly explained, dull, and vastly superior to the ones used by Ian Livingstone in Armies of Death. We lose four men and kill at least twenty-six times as many goblins. The rest surrender, and as Jorkell was not among the casualties, I don't have to Test my Luck to find out whether he's actually still alive or just didn't die. No, I did not make a mistake in that last sentence. Jorkell's survival is a certainty, and the roll is just to make it look as if the adventure's less railroady than it actually is.

Sutherland and Hill decide that I seek further advice from Asmund. He's not at home, though, and a brief search of the surrounding area reveals some crushed foliage. Acting like this is CSI:Skeln, I conclude that Barnak has captured Asmund, and head back to Kari. Jorkell expresses surprise that Asmund didn't foresee this. Maybe I should tell him about the incident with the three goblins...

And that's the end of part 2. Mercifully, as I'm working my way through FF in publication order, it'll be more than a week before I have to tackle the third and worst part of The Dark Usurper.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Silly Knees-Bent Running Around

As far as I know, Flight From the Dark is the only Lone Wolf adventure that's been significantly changed for the Mongoose Publishing edition. Later books have had some errors corrected (and the occasional new one added), there may have been the odd minor tweak to the text here and there, and the interior artwork is new, but the adventures themselves are functionally the same. The bonus adventure at the back of each volume, by contrast, is brand new, and I shall be playing some of them here. Probably not all, because the likelihood of my being able to get the complete set appears very low. Still, that's not going to become an issue until at least next October.

Many of the bonus adventures have a viewpoint character other than Lone Wolf - often someone who becomes an ally in the 'main' adventure. Given the generally poor survival rate among Lone Wolf's allies, these are prequels more often than not (much like Dawn of the Darklords, in fact, only that wasn't included with FFtD, and Banedon is one of the few supporting characters who live to make repeat appearances). As I'm trying to play all the Magnamund (and associated realms)-related adventures in order of internal chronology, that means that I'll be playing a lot of the bonus adventures before the principal ones.

That's how it is with Vincent N. Darlage's The Crown of King Alin IV, which accompanies the second LW adventure, Fire on the Water. In this adventure I play the part of Lord-lieutenant Rhygar, a Knight of the White Mountain (though Knight of the Red Shirt might be a more appropriate title). Still, for the moment, Rhygar is the hero, and he is a not-that-impressive:
Combat Skill 14
Endurance 23
Not being a Kai, he has no Kai disciplines, but there is a list of Knight of the White Mountain abilities from which to pick some powers. There are effectively three different abilities, but each has three power levels, and the higher levels must be built on the lower ones. It works out that I can have one ability at level 3 and one at level 2, one at level 3 and both others at level 1, or two at level two and the third at level 1. Considering my sub-par Combat Skill, I'll take Storm of Blows at level 3, which will give me an extra 3 CS against animate enemies. The damage reduction provided by Strength of Arms is tempting, but I doubt I'd be offered the power of smashing inanimate objects if it weren't likely to be needed, so I'll have Sundering Blow at level 2.

The background given is pretty insubstantial, and doesn't give any real indication that I have a personality. I have two urgent reports to read, and while the one from the King's Court is fairly obviously the high priority one, that just makes me suspect that there's something important in the one from the Durenese Coast Guard, so I read that one first. It mentions a suspected pirate ship that's been spotted in a cove, and as this adventure has been 'edited and augmented' by Joe Dever, I should probably make note of all sorts of minor details in case of another trivia quiz..

Turning my attention to the other report, I find that the likelihood of such a quiz has just increased drastically, as the content of the report is preceded by waffle about distances and travel times. Couldn't Mongoose have prevailed on Joe to write So You Think You Know Magnamund? and get the trivia bug out of his system?

Anyway, the actual report (what, no digression on the make of ink used to write it?) reveals that miscreants unknown have stolen a valuable item (the clue is in the title), and are probably en route to the town closest to the suspicious galleon from the other report. I can either head to their predicted destination, or investigate the Tarnalin Tunnel, through which they are likely to have travelled (and where I'm due to die in FotW, as I recall).

I see little point in heading for Samarra in advance of my appointment, so I'll try to intercept the thieves. Based on the earliest time at which the theft can have occurred (and what kind of security set-up were they using, that the theft of the ****ing King's crown could go unnoticed for up to three days?) they can't have got this far yet. Unless they were travelling by eagle, but that's unlikely, as they'd have had difficulties folding the crown up to fit it into a pouch.

The text suggests that the ship from the Coast Guard's report is probably being used by the thieves (because naturally gamebook readers are way too thick to have figured that out for themselves). I ride past creepy-looking trees, flocks of sheep and forelock-tugging peasants on my way to the town, where I must choose whether to check in with the Commander who sent that report or try and pick up some gossip in the tavern favoured by the local criminal types. Well, if I'm sufficiently recognisable that your average working class oik gets all stereotypical when I go past, I can't see the low-lifes getting talkative when I'm in their midst.

The amount of attention devoted to my heading uphill to Commodore Brayhan's office strongly suggests that there's going to be some kind of showdown in the local graveyard, and I may have to attack a tree. Either that or Darlage and Dever have forgotten that this is a gamebook rather than a tourist guide. Anyway, there's been no activity around the mysterious ship for a while, but a short time back one man came ashore and went to the tavern I didn't check out. The Commodore recommends visiting the tavern, and since I wouldn't be here if I hadn't chosen not to go there at the last decision, the text makes sure to tell me that yes I do go (gamebook readers being far too stupid and stubborn to change their plans in the light of new information).

Being a seaport, this town is full of Shifty Foreign Types, but that's not yet a problem as they appear to know their place (or are keen to avoid attention from a Knight of the White Man's Burden Mountain). The tavern is in pretty poor condition - so much so that the feature which should cause everyone to fall silent the moment we step through the door isn't working.

The junior officer who saw the man from the ship is back at Brayhan's office, as the Commodore wanted to accompany me, and someone had to stay on duty there. So the only person on my side who could recognise the man we want is back up the hill. Excellent planning there, Commodore. So do we start randomly asking strangers, "Are you from the pirate ship that's waiting for the men who stole the crown?" or try asking the barman if he can point out the newcomer who came in a quarter of an hour plus however long it took us to get here from the office ago?

I try the barman, who blatantly ignores my question, and carries on serving one of his patrons. I can try the crowd after all, try bribing the barman (with money I don't have - at least, there's been nothing in the rules or the text to indicate that I have as much as a single coin on me, which is a pretty significant omission if I'm supposed to use the stuff at all) or use threats (because we so obviously intimidate him, right?).

Bribery appears to work (as the text doesn't specify where I found the coins, I shall assume that I happened to be lugging a sofa around, and had a quick rummage in the gap), and we are directed to a room upstairs. Listening at this door, I can make out voices, and hear someone say, 'Crown of King Alin'. Well, obviously the conspirators wouldn't want any uncertainty among their ranks about which monarch's crown they were stealing, now would they? In fact, they're risking one heck of a lot of confusion by not specifying that it's Alin IV's crown rather than the one that belonged to some earlier King Alin.

My Sundering Blow is (just) powerful enough to break down the door, and we surprise the two men within, who leap to their feet (one of them concealing his chair as he does so, judging by the accompanying illustration). Both go for their swords, and I must choose an opponent. I pick the one in fancy clothes, hoping that the text might offer me the option of subduing and interrogating him rather than just hacking bits off of him until he stops moving.

Well, I don't kill him (or get spitted on the spot), but I don't actually get to fight out a battle here, either. He parries for a bit, and dashes through the door as soon as he gets an opening. Meanwhile the Commodore (whom I instructed to attack the man who looks like a pirate, in case it never occurred to him to try such a thing) has proved more adept at surviving fights with pirates than Mungo, but actually defeating opponents appears to be slightly beyond his capabilities. Suspecting that pursuing the well-dressed man will prove futile, I join in with the remaining fight. Now that he's outnumbered, the pirate fails to find the fight any more challenging, and manages to escape as well. Did we forget to unsheathe our swords at the start of the fight, or something?

I pursue the fleeing pirate, leaving the Commodore to deal with the well-dressed man (how did that blunder get past the playtesters?), and my quarry eludes me in spite of banging his head quite impressively on a low beam. My extensive local knowledge (someone should come up with a 'sarcasm' font) alerts me to a route that could enable me to intercept him (either that or lose him altogether), but before I can decide which way to go, I spot the other man emerging from the tavern, so I chase after him instead.

A textual chase sequence is a strange thing. Static words on a page lack the kinetic energy of a moving image, but that isn't necessarily an obstacle to creating a thrilling pursuit even when the only motion occurring is the reader's eyeballs tracking across and down the lines, and the occasional turn of a page. However, I won't be covering The Rings of Kether until next year, so this isn't really the time to be going on about well-written chases. When a supposed-to-be-exciting sequence starts summoning up memories of the Barrel of Bricks routine, something has gone wrong.

And let's not forget the comedic heritage of the conveniently-situated mound of hay.

Part of the way through the chase, the man turns into the pirate, but then he transforms back into the one I was actually pursuing. I'm not impressed with the quality control on the content of this book. Oh, and he's a pirate again. Also, we've come round in a big circle, and are heading back to the tavern. The villain I wasn't chasing has also doubled back, and they find reinforcements here. Oh, and the innkeeper's fixed the crowd-falls-silent-a-matic while I've been running around town.

The original pirate and two of his friends attack me one at a time. Not sure which is which, but the most adept has Combat Skill 16, which is effectively lower than mine thanks to Storm of Blows. So the man whose swordplay kept him from so much as taking a scratch while fighting the Commodore and me simultaneously is actually a worse fighter than I. Plausible hypothesis: Mongoose made these books fat hardbacks so readers wouldn't hurl them away in disgust for fear of damaging something valuable.

A single blow fells the first pirate. It takes me three rounds to kill the second. The third pirate and I kill each other, but I'd have survived if all that pointless running around hadn't worn down my Endurance beforehand.

Well, I'm no longer disappointed that there's little chance of my getting to play all of the bonus adventures.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Grey Day

I've been a fan of Doctor Who even longer than I have been a gamebook fan. Today being the 49th anniversary of the original broadcast of the very first episode, it seemed the obvious date on which to play one of the adventures in which these two obsessions intersect.

Despite there being at least two dozen DW gamebooks in existence, there are very few that are suitable for this blog. The recent Decide Your Destiny series is out because the books lack failure endings, and I'm not interested in writing up adventures that I cannot lose. As for the Find Your Fate books from the eighties, while they have plenty of potential for meeting a nasty end, most of them have overly narrow 'true paths'. Even the most railroady Fighting Fantasy gamebook offers more freedom of choice than these. The only real exception is such a bad book, I cannot bring myself to contemplate trying it again (and considering some of the clunkers I've already revisited here, that's saying something). Switchback, the solo adventure from the Time Lord RPG, is only a fragment, with less than 20 sections, and while I've been willing to post write-ups that are extremely short because I failed early, one that's going to be very brief even if I succeed has little appeal.

So that just leaves the books that FASA released to tie in with their Doctor Who RPG in the mid-1980s. The first of these is Doctor Who and the Rebel's Gamble, by William H. Keith, Jr. As I recall, I tracked down a copy in Ballard's several years after it came out. I shan't say how I failed it, because there's a strong probability that this attempt will end the same way: early on in the adventure, a lot hinges on one roll of the dice.

There seems to be a significant overlap between DW fandom and gamebook fandom, so before I get started on the actual playthrough, here's a brief digression about the continuity-mangling aspect of DWatRG. Apparently, the book was written for the 1975 TARDIS crew - the Fourth Doctor, Sarah Jane Smith and Harry Sullivan - but owing to a blunder somewhere along the line, the cover illustration featured the then-current line-up of the Sixth Doctor and Peri Brown. Allegedly, it was considered cheaper, easier, or in some other regard preferable to amend the text rather than the picture, so the Doctor became the Sixth, Sarah became Peri, and Harry... remained Harry, with no explanation of why he was suddenly back on the TARDIS. Not an ideal solution, and unless I'm forgetting some significant detail, a better one could easily have been found, but I'll say more on that topic later.

There's a brief teaser featuring psychiatrist (and US Civil War re-creationist) Dr. Carl Jenner and his patient, Everett Marshall. Marshall claims to have been transported to 1986 from the Battle of Gettysburg, which Jenner finds hard to believe until the two of them are sucked into a temporal eddy similar to the one that brought Marshall to the 20th century in the first place.

As the adventure proper commences, some gamebook idiosyncrasies become apparent. Section numbering starts at 100 rather than 1, and the narrative is in the first person and the past tense rather than the more common second person present. Oh, and in this series I play the part of the Doctor, rather than a companion like in all the others.

I'm not sure how detailed the rewrite to change the principal 'cast' was, but it's only been partially successful: while the Doctor's dialogue does a decent job of capturing Colin Baker's voice, the companion expressing concerns about having possibly wound up in the Jurassic 'with all those great, thundering dinosaurs' sounds far more like Sarah than Peri.

Anyway, I've come here (somewhere in North America, somewhen closer to the twentieth century than the Jurassic) to check up on a temporal anomaly that registered on the TARDIS' instruments. Something has travelled from one time to another in an unorthodox manner, possibly indicating a primitive attempt at time travel, which could potentially disrupt the timelines, bring about the destruction of Earth, and even make a mess of the entire universe. This obviously merits investigation. Or I could go fishing.

Business before pleasure. Rechecking the instruments narrows down the location to somewhere near Pennsylvania, within five years of 1860. The sound of horses nearby draws our attention to the nearby river, where dozens of grey-clad cavalrymen are pursuing a lone fugitive, whose clothes look like they used to be a business suit from a more modern era. I promptly intervene, managing to convince the soldiers that the man is an escaped patient of mine. They hand him over, warn us not to go near the Confederate camp after dark unless we want to be mistaken for spies like my 'patient' was, and then head back whence they came.

The man introduces himself as Dr. Jenner and explains (as far as he is able) how he comes to be in September 1862. He and his patient were separated while being whisked back in time, and he has no idea where Marshall is. This is a problem, as Marshall's brief sojourn in the twentieth century has provided him with knowledge that could enable him to alter the outcome of the Civil War, and a strong motive for doing so: his younger brother died at Gettysburg.

Still, Jenner has reasonable grounds for believing that Marshall might be close by, as this is one place and time where his anachronistic knowledge could massively change the course of history. Thanks to an unlikely sequence of events (reality doesn't need to be as plausible as fiction), a duplicate copy of General Lee's orders to his army has been used to wrap a small bundle of cigars that will get lost during the Confederate withdrawal from Fredericksburg tomorrow. In a few days it should be found by Union troops and passed on to General McClennan, bringing about a victory (of sorts) for the north at the Battle of Antietam and providing Lincoln with a politically advantageous moment for making the Emancipation Proclamation. If Marshall can find those cigars first, things are liable to turn out very differently.

We spend the night in the TARDIS and, once the troops have moved on, we start snooping around the sites where they'd camped, and Jenner spots someone he thinks might be Marshall. We take a closer look, and yes, that's our man. He's been here for a few months already, and has been promoted on account of the quality of his advice. Which means he's able to call on back-up, and get us all arrested on suspicion of being Yankee spies. Five men escort Jenner, Harry and me towards a shed, while Peri is taken off to the home of Confederate supporter Mrs Ramsey in Fredericksburg.

Reflecting on the low accuracy of the muskets being used at this time, I attempt an escape. This is where my first attempt at the book went awry, and the same has just happened again. To avoid getting shot, I need 7 or more on 2d6, and I only got 4. I manage to regenerate, and (despite not having a spare hand with which to technobafflegab myself) to stay as Colin Baker rather than becoming Sylvester McCoy.

The book then forces us to head into Fredericksburg in search of Peri rather than go back for a second attempt at keeping Marshall from finding the cigars. And the gamebook design here is as awkward as the plotting, as the section to which I must turn next depends on whether it's still the day on which we arrived or we spent the night in a shed. Er, neither.

Not that it makes any real difference. Either way, we hit a brief info-dump about Barbara Frietchie (and further authorial clumsiness: yesterday I knew enough about her to wonder if Marshall might be looking for her, today I need Jenner to explain why she's remotely significant) before getting pointed to Mrs Ramsey's place. Oh, and the Fourth Doctor's hat escaped the rewrites here.

Time to try something counter-intuitive, I think. You see, back when I first had a go at this book, I succeeded in regenerating as well. Went to Fredericksburg, rescued Peri, and then discovered that while I had been doing that, Marshall found the cigars and messed up history. But I have the option of keeping the Ramsey house under surveillance rather than just knocking on the door and demanding to see Peri, and if the book is broken enough, sitting around doing nothing for a while might provide an opportunity to go back and look for the cigars before it's too late.

It works! Well, at the very least, after wasting half the day staring at the house, I get the option of going to the fields where the Confederates had their camp. Along the way some bizarre dialogue implies that forcing one's way into another person's home was socially acceptable in the twentieth century, but let's not dwell on the sort of neighbourhood Mr. Keith Jr. grew up in, because Harry's just found the cigars. Not that Jenner couldn't have done so just as easily - indeed, I have yet to see any good reason why Harry's part in all this couldn't have been given to Jenner. Edit out his lines from the very first scenes, and give any exposition-prompting questions he might ask later to Peri or the Doctor, and there'd be no need for this awkward blend of eras.

Anyway, we take away the cigars and the document in which they're wrapped, intending to put them back once Marshall has given up his search, and then head back to Fredericksburg. Where I need to ask directions to the Ramsey residence again, because the structure of this book is a mess. The door is opened by an armed teenager. I try to persuade him to let me past, and he shoots me. Fortuitously, the bullet only goes through several vital organs, and misses the battle plans in my pocket. Regenerating again, and managing to defer the McGannification that ought to accompany it, I jump the TARDIS forward in time to shortly before the Union troops arrive.

While I'm replacing the package where it was dropped, Jenner wanders off to watch a real live Civil War skirmish. Twit! But the dice are kinder to him than they have been to me, and I get him back to the TARDIS unscathed. He speculates that Marshall's next best opportunity to change history would be to try and avert the death of 'Stonewall' Jackson at Chancellorsville in eight months' time. Nevertheless, I decide to go to the Battle of Antietam first, in case Marshall tries to see his younger self or his brother there.

We arrive some distance away from the actual fighting, and encounter General Lee. Both his hands are bandaged as a consequence of a recent accident, and I apply a little advanced medical knowledge to ease the pain, thereby gaining his favour. After a few pages of historical info-dumping, I get the opportunity to ask about Marshall, who has gone off to check up on 'relatives' at the Lower Bridge. A (rather awkwardly explained) roll of the dice enables me to persuade the General to permit us to seek Marshall out, but a run-in with Union soldiers prevents us from getting anywhere near him. Next stop, Chancellorsville.

The TARDIS' sensors can get a rough fix on the temporal distortion caused by Marshall's presence, but only to within a few hundred metres ('two or three times the length of an American football field', as the narration uncharacteristically expresses it). While searching for Marshall, we get captured by Confederates again. Not wanting to risk getting shot a third time, I make no resistance, and as luck would have it, we appear to have found the very troops that were responsible for the friendly fire incident that assisted Jackson towards a premature death. Marshall turns up, and now I have to take action, whatever the risk. Indeed, it's possible that my making a break for it is what causes the men to fire upon Jackson. At any rate, by the time the firing is over, I'm unhurt and Jackson's days are numbered.

Now I attempt to persuade Everett to abandon his quest, and the roll to determine what happens here is even more awkwardly described than the one at Antietam. Still, the double six I roll pretty much guarantees failure no matter how I interpret the jargon. Marshall runs off, and I risk getting Eccleston'd by chasing after him.

Marshall gets me at gunpoint and, not liking the look of the modifier on the roll to dodge, I try persuasion again. And the lists of roll modifiers get even more convoluted: roll two dice, add four, subtract my Charisma (9), subtract my Diplomacy Skill level (6), subtract two, add the roll of another two dice, and add ten. And I need a total of 0 or less to succeed. Which isn't actually possible using the stats provided in the book. So Marshall walks off. And I let him, rather than risk precipitating another shooting match. That's another enforced decision, by the way.

On to Gettysburg, then. But the Marshall effect has now developed into severe turbulence in the Time Vortex, and another bad roll reduces the TARDIS and its occupants to a cloud of subatomic particles.

Buried somewhere in the back of the book is a cop-out clause allowing me to go back to the start of the adventure and restart, but I shall disregard it. Like I said, this blog's not for unlosable books. Besides, I'm not sure I can face playing through the thing again.

It's still a lot better than that Find your Fate book, though.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

I Was Uncomfortable: Now I'm Uncomfortable

During the first quarter of 1985, White Dwarf magazine published The Dark Usurper, a three-part Fighting Fantasy adventure by Jon Sutherland and Gareth Hill. I knew nothing of it when it came out, and while I did acquire one instalment in the nineties, the adventure languished incomplete and unregarded in my FF collection until last year, when someone put the relevant WD issues up for sale on eBay and mentioned the auctions at the unofficial FF forum. I placed bids on the ones I lacked, was not outbid, and finally got the opportunity to play the adventure. I won the first part with little effort, and barely any use of the dice.

My background is a lot more specific than is usual for FF at this stage: I am Corwin Calbraith, Duke of Skeln, recently returned from an unsuccessful crusade, and imprisoned in my own castle by inhuman servants of the 'new' Duke of Skeln.

Like Smith & Thomson's Orb, Skeln appears to be separate from Titan: it's also the setting for The Stench of Death, a systemless multiplayer scenario that Sutherland co-wrote for GM magazine a few years later. From what little I know about the place, it could probably be shoehorned into Titan without much effort, but I can see no good reason to bother. Especially when TDU doesn't seem to want to be a FF adventure. It uses the rules, but not the style, lacking distinctive formatting and phraseology (for example, there are no italics on 'Test your Luck', and the text says 'If you succeed' rather than 'If you are Lucky'), while adding 'if you lose' options for every fight to spell out the fact of Corwin's death rather than letting the zero-or-less Stamina speak for itself as FF usually did.

In addition to being un-FF-like in tone, the writing is pretty poor. Consider this excerpt from the Introduction (not 'Background' as in most FF books):
Speeding to your hilltop castle you find strange grey creatures there to greet you. Realising that resistance was useless, they escort you to a cell at the top of the highest tower in the fortress.
There you have languished, confused and bewildered.
Indeed. Too confused and bewildered to be able to tell which tense to use. Or to recognise when separate clauses of a sentence have different subjects. While the temporal confusion does clear up once the authors no longer have to wrestle with the complexities of distinguishing between past and present, other grammatical sloppiness persists.

Still, I'm supposed to be playing the adventure as well as critiquing it, so I'd better roll up Corwin's stats.
Skill: 8
Stamina: 20
Luck: 9
Mind you, Corwin has grown progressively weaker over the course of the three months he's spent as a prisoner, so in his current condition he's... at full Skill, Stamina and Luck. Even if the authors weren't aware that House of Hell had already set a precedent for starting at less than full stats, it's not so radical a concept that they couldn't have thought of it themselves. Did they not dare to 'tamper' with the rules, or did they just not care?

The first time I played this, I escaped from my cell by prising up floorboards. Just for a bit of variety, I'll go for the bedsheet rope option this time. Perhaps not such a good idea, as I'm only able to get 20 feet's worth of rope, and that's obviously not going to be enough to take me from 'the top of the highest tower' to the ground. Still, it might reach to a window in a less secure room, so I'll give it a go.

It turns out that there is another window sort of within range-ish, but it's several feet to my left. Still, swinging that far shouldn't be beyond the capabilities of a heroic adventurer, should it? Alas, Corwin isn't much of a hero, and swings into the wall rather than the window. I lose my grip, fall, and inexplicably die mid-air so as to be spared the impact with the ground. And for some bizarre reason the section ends with musings on how the King might react to news of my death: a detail that matters to me about as much as the third most recent increase in the price of dental floss in Greeley, Nebraska.

A pretty poor showing, but that's not inappropriate, as it's a pretty poor adventure. It’s a pity that my previous online playthrough of TDU wasn’t salvageable when the forum on which it was hosted got deleted, as that was more substantial, and included a good deal more snark directed at shoddy writing and plotting (plus a bit of 1970s nostalgia).

Monday, 19 November 2012

To Mock Your Own Grinning

It's been a while since I've had cause to mention the job lot of Tunnels & Trolls solo dungeons I got back at the start of the nineties, but now the October thematic detour is over, the next title in sequence is another that I got in that batch. Keith A. Abbott's Weirdworld (revised and edited by Ugly John Carver) is another 'enter somewhere strange and dangerous to find treasure' adventure, set in the Madhouse of Maximillian the Magnificent, also known as Weirdworld.

I know I had a bit of a look through this one at some point, though I remember very little of its content. One aspect I do recall will be addressed straight after I've generated my character. Everything else that persists in my memory is in some way associated with the Madhouse lavatory. I can't be certain that this is the very first gamebook ever to feature toilet facilities, but it must be among the earliest to do so.

There's no mention of level restrictions, so I'm hoping that it's survivable by inexperienced characters (not that I have made it through any of the explicitly low-level T&T solos I've attempted to date, but I would prefer it to be at least theoretically possible, however unlikely, to make it out alive for once). I roll up a slightly below-average character, but making him a Dwarf rather than a human improves him to:
Strength 26
Intelligence 9
Luck 10
Constitution 16
Dexterity 11
Charisma 5
Speed 7
It's convenient that my best roll was for Strength, as this is another 'Warriors only' solo. Mind you, unlike most such adventures, this one does provide the option of having Maximillian perform, in effect, a sorcerous lobotomy on magic-using characters to render them eligible. As I recall, the process is not reversible, and any hostile reaction to having intellect transformed into muscle is met with a lethal response. Having more brawn than brains from the outset saves me the hassle of dumbing down.

I enter the Madhouse, and a stone block drops to keep me from going back the way I came. The room I've just entered contains a selection of weapons, a shield, a chest, a skull and some bones, and a voice tells me I may take any one item if I wish. In case it's not a double bluff, I pick the skull (most of the items are so obviously useful that there must be a trick, and the other bones are too nondescript). And either I'd subconsciously remembered this bit, or I'm on the same kind of wavelength as Mr. Abbott, as the next section asks if I picked the skull or something else.

The skull talks, introducing itself as Fred the Head and asking to be my friend. On the off-chance that he might turn out to be a useful companion, I retain him. And I won't find out whether he's a help or a hindrance until I'm attacked, so whatever he does, he's no guide to the place.

The next room looks like a classic mad scientist's laboratory. Smashing it up seems inadvisable (besides which, I lack the torch and pitchfork that are de rigueur for any such activity), and sampling the end product of whatever chemical reaction is going on here isn't likely to be smart, either. Without going into detail, I will say that this section might link up with what I remember of the adventure.

There's no turning back, but two exits lead north. I try the corridor, which is exactly as high as I am tall (three foot six, according to the dice). Blocking my way is a foot-tall leprechaun armed with a pencil as tall as he is. He draws a line and dares me to cross it.

No, nothing remotely suspicious here.

I attack the leprechaun, who turns out to have a triple-figure Dexterity (so he gets more than +100 on his combat rolls), while his pencil has a magic eraser that does horrendous amounts of damage. It's not all bad news: Fred spits a tooth at him, and has a good chance of doing lethal damage. Still, the text could do with being a lot clearer about how this attack works. There's no mention of the rules governing a missile attack, which has its good points as well as bad. A leprechaun-sized target isn't particularly easy to hit, and as Fred has no listed Dexterity, I suppose it would have to be my decidedly average score, if any, that got used to determine whether or not the tooth hit, and the likelihood of success is not high. But still a lot better than my chances if the tooth-spitting does not constitute a missile attack, because if that's the case, either Fred is just another combatant on my side, and I'll need to score something in the region of 200 on 6 dice for us to survive, or the tooth gets counted as a kind of blasting spell, in which case I still need to roll 200-odd on 6d6 to not get killed, but there's a 50% chance that the leprechaun dies as well.

So I guess Fred and I get rubbed out, but it's possible that the leprechaun bites the dust.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Before the Deadly Fire of the Enemy

The second Combat Command gamebook is set In the World of Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers. I've actually read some Heinlein, though not the book which provides the setting for Mark Acres' Shines the Name. Still, I enjoyed such tales as The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag and All You Zombies (the latter of which must be one of the least suitable stories for adaptation into a gamebook ever), and I know a little about ST based on fan complaints about what the movie got wrong (apparently everything and a whole lot more besides).

The rules seem pretty much the same as in the first book. Now I'm vaguely used to them, the hefty info-dump is more bearable, and this time I noticed that the five combat values are Manpower, Ordnance, Attack Strength, Melee Strength, Stealth and Morale. The book also has an introduction by Gary Gygax, which explains how a gamebook (sorry, a 'Chosen Path' book) is different from a novel and a rôle-playing game or scenario, and goes on to claim that this one is 'a whole lot more than [...] other multiple-choice, branching-path game books'. There's more hyperbole, but if I focus on it much more, I may wind up abandoning the book before I even start playing it. Suffice to say that I am not impressed.

My viewpoint character is a Trooper named Julian, whose interior monologue is littered with chunks of awkward exposition, which so distracts him that he fails to notice when Bug warriors surround him, and only survives because another Trooper throws a bomb at them. A whole lot of blah follows, revealing that the book has started in the middle of a semi-botched mission to rescue someone, a Trooper with a personal grudge against Julian is misbehaving in order to try and make him look incompetent, and the order has just been given for a disorganised retreat. Paolo the troublemaker is down, time is running out, and Julian must choose between abandoning the pest and trying to rescue him, the latter either single-handed or with support.

Abandoning him probably means a Morale penalty. Asking for back-up when disobeying orders looks like a great way to get demoted and end the adventure. Reckless heroics, then. The resultant combat is a little one-sided, and not in my favour, but as long as I can survive two rounds (which I do), I can get away with it. My having saved Paolo's life hasn't made him any less hostile or insubordinate, and I suspect that the Power of Trope will interfere with any attempt at getting him court-martialed, so I suspect I'm going to have to test out the system's rules for unarmed combat on him and then, when that fails to change his attitude, wait for the inevitable Fire-Forged Friends moment.

Well, it turns out that Paolo and Julian beat each other to a pulp off-screen, so no dice are required for that exchange of opinions. Still, I very much doubt that that's the last time the two will clash.

Still, that tiresome plot thread goes on hold for now to make room for an almost-suicide mission, leading a squad of rookies in a raid on an alien R&D facility suspected to be a covert think-tank. The attack is carried out in broad daylight because the enemy won't be expecting that.

Military planning is clearly as well thought-out as ever.

A large crowd of Skinnies (for those unfamiliar with the setting 'Skinny' is the humans' name for this alien race) gathers to watch us land. I make the rookie error of not flamethrowering civilians, and find myself embroiled in combat against a crazed mob. And what a great fight this is going to be - allow me to summarise how it is to be conducted:

  1. Roll 2d6 for my attack. The number rolled is irrelevant, as enemy retaliation works exactly the same way regardless of whether I inflict maximum damage, miss altogether, or anything in between, and at the end of each round, Skinny reinforcements replace anyone I killed, so I can't even affect them by attrition.
  2. Roll 2d6 for the Skinnies' attack. If they get above 10, I die.
  3. Repeat until three rounds are over or terminal apathy has set in, whichever comes first.
I kept count of my kills just in case it turned out to matter subsequently and the text had neglected to state that I'd need to do so, but no, after the three rounds were up, one of the rookies set the surviving Skinnies alight, thereby dispersing the mob no matter how many remained. I think someone must have edited the book's introduction, so here's my guess as to what Mr. Gygax originally said, with the deleted words in italics:
The book you have is going to involve a whole lot more completely unnecessary dice-rolling than a novel - or even other multiple-choice, branching-path game books.
It's hard to take the next choice seriously because of the jargon involved. If this book ever bothered to explain the in-universe meaning of the term 'bounce', it must have been buried somewhere in one of the frontal lobe-mashing walls of text through which I've had to wade. As it is, I'm stuck with mental images of a military assault carried out with the aid of trampolines, large springs, or possibly Space Hoppers.

Regardless, bouncing would expose the Troops to danger from a Skinny air defense gun, so I advise against it. This leads to a Morale check and the extermination of the entire squad (yes, if I fail the roll we all die, but if I succeed at it we all die in a marginally less ignominious manner - I know both outcomes because I succeeded, and when I saw that the section to which I'd been directed was a fail ending, I checked the alternative in case it was just a number transposition error).

Well, I did not enjoy that book at all. It seems unclear about its target audience - there are great wodges of exposition for the benefit of anyone who hasn't read Starship Troopers, but a lot of the tactical decision-making seems to require understanding of information that may be in Heinlein's novel, but certainly doesn't appear to be anywhere sensible in Shines the Name. I just hope that this is the low point of the Combat Command series, because if the other books are similar (or even worse), I've got some serious opposite-of-fun coming up every few months.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Not a Pretty Site

There can be few books that I've looked forward to as much as I did The Crown of Kings, the last volume of Steve Jackson's Sorcery! For all its 'long lost' status, Bloodbones didn't even come close. When TCoK did come out, I first encountered it while wandering around town after school one day. There was a whole row of copies in Boots, on the same shelf unit where I'd first set eyes on Deathtrap Dungeon and Island of the Lizard King the year before. I didn't have enough money on me to buy a copy at the time, and was tempted to try shoplifting a copy. Conscience or common sense (or a bit of both) prevailed, and I made do with looking through the book for a bit before heading home, returning a day or two later when I had the required funds.

Too impatient to wait until I could look up the character I'd brought through the three preceding books, I started reading it on the way home. This showed me just how lethal the book could be (I think it was the elasticated rope that led to my first death), and I believe I saved that veteran until I'd got at least a rough idea of how to survive the early and middling stages of the adventure.

It's the one Sorcery! book I have yet to beat since reacquiring the series last decade. I've got a significant distance through it, but always fallen some way before the final hurdle. The write-up of my attempt at the unofficial FF forum shows how far I have got. Will I fare any better this time? Only one way to find out...

So the survivor of the previous book has reached Low Xamen. I can see the fortress that is my ultimate destination, and the sight does little to encourage me. Still, forbidding though it may be, it does not make me as apprehensive as does noticing hoofprints along the trail I'm following. Which is odd. Okay, so the ultimate villain in House of Hell had cloven hooves, but the Analander (that's what everyone who's heard the Fire Serpent's news calls me) knows nothing of that adventure (except maybe in some crossover fanfic that I have zero desire to read), and I'm pretty sure that the only hooved beasts encountered so far on this quest were horses, none of which did anything remotely menacing.

It's getting late and a storm is brewing, so I decide to make camp for the night. Up ahead I see three caves, one with a small entrance, one with hoofprints leading into it, and one with no real distinguishing features. Determined to discover the truth about what made the prints, I enter the cave into which they lead, and catch sight of a figure leaning against the wall. The illustration reveals more than I initially notice: while the text merely describes the figure as human-like and naked, with long hair, in the picture I can make out horns, fur-covered lower limbs, and (predictably) hooves rather than feet.

Those details remain unmentioned as I try and fail to attract the figure's attention, and draw nearer, but I finally spot them at around the same time that I discover the figure to be female and dead. With no Fear stat to manage, I am not overly troubled by this, but I'd rather not spend the night in the company of a corpse, especially in a world where being dead isn't always a guarantee of not being hostile.

There are parts of the world where 'Rest in Peace' is followed by an unwritten 'Please!'

Next I try the small cave, which I can only enter by crawling. As I do so, something inside it howls loudly, but I refuse to be intimidated, and advance to confront the occupant. Even if I didn't know what's in there from my very first attempt at the book, I'd probably expect some kind of trick, because all the available spell options are sensible. Anyway, I trust in my sword to protect me against the beast waiting for me, which turns out to be timid, tiny, and devoid of anything sharp with which to defend itself. Knowing when it's beaten, the Jib-Jib runs away, leaving me to search the cave and find a bottle containing a parchment I cannot read.

After a quiet night and the standard Stamina penalty for anyone who didn't eat the day before (Steve rather optimistically assuming that full-saga readers will be able to remember whether or not they ate Provisions between crossing the Lake and meeting the Marsh Goblins when they read The Seven Serpents, possibly months before), I set off again, helping myself to some naturally occurring spell components along the way. Encountering more hoofprints, I wonder if mountain goats could have caused them, apparently being too thick to imagine that the prints might have been made by creatures like the one I found in the first cave. Or the two that are throwing spears at me right now.

"I saw someone dead who looked like you," is not generally considered a particularly good way to start a conversation, but it works here. The creatures are saddened but not surprised, as the one I found had been ill for some time (which would be ominous news if I'd spent the night in that cave as the text implies), and it is a custom of theirs to wander off and die alone rather than become a burden to friends and family. I accept an invitation back to their village, and along the way I evidently learn that they are She-Satyrs, as that's what the book calls them from this point onwards.

They take me to their leader, Sh'houri, to break the news of my discovery, and I decide to see if that parchment I found means anything to her. It turns out to have been written by another former resident of their village, and is important enough that I am offered a variety of spell components as a reward for bringing it. The She-Satyrs also warn me of assorted booby-trapped doors in Mampang Fortress, and give me a hardwood spear, which they advise me to have blessed by Colletus the holy man if I should encounter him along the way.

Resuming my journey, I spot a sheltered alcove that looks like a good rest stop, and settle down there for a meal. Erudite graffiti warns me to turn back, and lets me know Colletus' whereabouts. I disregard the first bit, but take note of the rest before setting off again. Ignoring the rope that brought one of my early attempts at the book to an abrupt end, I reach a bridge, which starts making groaning and moaning noises as soon as I step onto it.

This'll be the Groaning Bridge, then. Which is where the writing said I could find Colletus. So I summon him as directed by the She-Satyrs, and discover that he's blind. Also a little curmudgeonly, though he mellows as soon as I request his services as a holy man. He blesses the spear, and tries to dissuade me when I tell him of my quest, revealing that trying to defeat the evil in Mampang is what cost him his sight. I refuse to turn back, so he gives me more spell components, blesses me, and reveals the hitherto invisible safe bridge next to the secretly unreal Groaning one.

Beyond the bridge I soon reach the pass that leads to the Fortress, which looks so demoralising that I suffer a Skill penalty as long as I can see it. Cautiously approaching, I spot a couple of drunken guards. Not too drunk to notice me, alas. One attacks, while the other rushes for a horn to summon reinforcements. I don't manage to kill the first in time to prevent the second from sounding the horn, and I don't manage to kill the second one at all. He need not have called for backup - though he will at least have someone to boast to about having saved Mampang from the Analander.

Well, that was over a good deal quicker than I'd expected. A pity as, despite some annoying flaws (follow the earlier link if you want to see me rant about a particularly wrong-headed spell implementation), overall the book is a satisfyingly epic conclusion to the saga.

Monday, 12 November 2012

The Harder They Fall

Memory can be very arbitrary. The only reason I am certain that I bought Proteus issue 4, David Brunskill's The Forgotten City, on the way to school is that a friend showed interest in the back cover ad, which listed Captain Britain's stats for TSR's Marvel Super Heroes RPG. As for early attempts at the adventure, I vaguely recall failing what turned out to be a crucial Courage check at one point, but that's about it. The Quest Sheet has been filled out in pencil, but tells me only that I repeatedly took damage and got healed on the attempt recorded there.

The plot is very straightforward. A while ago, the evil Wizard-King Chaladon and his mutant servants conquered the city of Meldoin. Chaladon cast a spell which turned the majority of its residents into mindless slaves. A dozen of the locals managed to escape, though, and they believe that they could inspire their fellow townsfolk to rise up and overthrow Chaladon's armies if only some adventurer could kill Chaladon himself and lift his curse. So I've been hired to take care of those little details. This makes the title something of a misnomer: if the city truly were forgotten, there'd be no people pooling their savings to try and get someone to bump off its ruler.

No magic powers at all this time. I have only my sword, my food, two helpings of restorative herbs, and my stats, which stand at:
Dexterity 14 (still 1d6+8, but not for much longer)
Strength 25 (2d6+15 again)
Courage 8 (dropped to 1d6+4, which is a little harsh).
I don't appear to have mapped this one, but it wasn't lethal enough that sheer repetition has burned much of the optimal path into my brain, so I may well get lost and fail here.

A few hints about what I need to do have been provided thanks to the efforts of a couple of spies. I'll need a couple of keys and Chaladon's book of spells (and he's created a couple of fake books of spells to make things harder for would-be assassins), and I may be able to bribe or otherwise subvert some of his associates. Oh, and the secret tunnel the spies used to get in and out is still there. Guess how I intend to try and get in.

The tunnel has not been discovered since the spies last used it, so I gain access to the city without difficulty. Not long afterwards I'm spotted by a Bolgroth, a boar-faced humanoid, and have to fight him. It's an easy fight, and I leave his necklace untouched, as I seem to recall that Bolgroth stuff is generally bad for humans.

Soon afterwards I reach a crossroads. Great. A random choice that may doom me if I get it wrong. I try south, which leads me into a darkened alley. Some careless individual has dropped a nail-studded log in it, and I get off comparatively lightly, losing only just over a third of my strength when I trip and impale myself on a few spikes.

A bird is singing in a glowing tree. Which sounds like the sort of code phrase I might use to identify myself to a spy working for my employers. Perhaps it is, and the correct response is, "You are beneath the Tree of Listening." That's what the bird says to me, anyway. She then tells me that I'm on the right road, and many dangers are ahead. The latter I could have guessed. Gamebooks in which no harm can come to the hero are rare (but more common than they used to be, more's the pity).

A little further on there's a well at the side of the road. Not sharing a certain gamebook blogger's traumatic past, I choose to investigate it. Tossing in a stone reveals there to be no water at the bottom, so I lower the bucket and climb down the rope, reaching an underground network of bland tunnels with mildly glowing walls. After a while, my wanderings lead me to a cavern, where I am attacked by a Lumberbug. There's a significant disparity between words and illustration here: the text says 'a kind of huge slug slithering towards you', but the picture shows a four-legged thing with a caterpillar-style segmented body, a ratlike tail, and a head that appears to be part cat, part dumpling. After killing the monster, I find a stone casket which contains a bronze key.

Further exploration leads to a fight with a Serpent, which is guarding an egg-shaped stone. The stone was being used as a paperweight for its instructions, which indicate it to be a Deathstone, that can be used to one-shot an Armoured Knight.

Eventually I find the door that the bronze key unlocks. The glow from the walls fades beyond it, so I am soon heading into darkness. A Flying Skull attacks me, and things get nasty. I automatically lose a point of Courage when I see the wretched thing, and I now have to roll under my remaining Courage to not be scared away. Even if I'd had the highest Courage possible when I started, I'd need 8 or less on 2d6 to not fail the adventure (of course the Flying Skull's guarding something essential). Having rolled up less than the maximum, my chance of making it is under 50% - and I just miss the target number. Well, I'm doomed. The only question remaining is how I'll die.

Climbing back up and resuming my doomed journey, I catch sight of a house with a light in it, and investigate. Inside is an old man sitting at a table with two jugs on it. Knowing better than to attack random old men in gamebook adventures, I greet him, and mention that I'm looking for Chaladon's Palace. He says I'll need to be clever to get there, and sets me a test, pouring liquids between jugs and asking about relative quantities of their original contents. I solve the puzzle without difficulty, so he gives me one of the jugs, stating that it will help me against the Vortigern.

Returning to the street, I walk on to a junction which is overshadowed by a ten-foot-high statue of a lizard with a barbed tail. A plaque identifies it as the Vortigern, and goes on to call it 'the terror of Tylwyth Teg'. Sounds like a pulpy horror novel set in a Welsh mining village. Inevitably, the statue comes to life and moves to attack me, so I throw the contents of the jug at it, and its scales melt away, leaving it more vulnerable. It's still quite a formidable opponent, but I manage to kill it anyway. The barb on its tail comes off, so I take it as a souvenir of the battle.

After heading down a couple more streets, I find my way blocked by a barricade of spikes and stakes (also on fire, going by the wording of the paragraph, which strikes me as a little odd - won't the wooden parts of the barricade burn up, weakening its structural integrity?). Brigands surround me, four of them pointing crossbows in my direction, while their leader states his terms: I must turn back now, or give him... a Mandrake Root. Not quite a shrubbery, but still a pretty odd thing to be demanding. And given one of the purported properties of Mandrakes, I have to wonder if the long, pointy components of the barricade are to compensate for something.

Lacking a Mandrake Root, I have to turn back and try a different path. Another Bolgroth attacks, but I kill him and leave his 'attractive' wristband where it is. Moving on, I see another house with a light in it, and go inside, finding three men sitting at a table, staring vacantly into space and making no response when I greet them. I place a helping of restorative herbs on the table, and the same primal instinct that causes people to consume entire bowls of nuts or twiglets without even noticing that they're doing so kicks in. The text describes the men's eating of the herbs as 'robot-like', which jars a little in this quasi-medieval setting.

Gradually the men regain their self-awareness (and since the Mandrake incident, I'm starting to see all sorts of possible metaphors in the text). They thank me for freeing them from Chaladon's influence, and let me know that I shall soon be passing the home of Miletus, one of Chaladon's deputy-sorcerers. He's apparently vicious and cunning, and loves jewels. One of the men offers me an emerald ring, which I take to use as a bribe.

Well, evidently I managed to avoid the run-in with a band of robbers. I know it precedes the encounter I've just had, as a bad roll of the dice can result in falling into an open sewer and rendering all food and herbs inedible. Apart from that regrettable aspect, it's not a particularly noteworthy event. Mind you, the accompanying illustration is by far the worst drawing in the magazine, clumsy foreshortening of limbs making a couple of the robbers look a little like thalidomide victims.

The road becomes a tunnel for no obvious reason, and I'm still underground when I reach a stone hut with Miletus' name on the door. Entering, I see assorted clichéd magical paraphernalia, and am confronted by a short, bald man with rotten teeth. This is Miletus, who proclaims himself Chaladon's 'chief Wizard'. Not wasting any time, I offer to give him a jewel, and he indicates a preference for emeralds. Good thing I have one, eh?

Now I've got his interest, I suggest that he could wind up in a very powerful position if anything fatal were to happen to Chaladon. My theories interest him, and he gives me a silver key, directions to Chaladon's palace, and the promise of a high rank when he's in charge. (Incidentally, having this encounter go badly can lead to one of the nastier deaths in the book: being trapped in an airtight coffin made of unbreakable glass, so Miletus can watch me suffocate.)

Following his directions, I soon emerge back into the open air, and proceed until I catch sight of a mist-shrouded lake that contains an island, with a rickety footbridge leading to the island. I cross the bridge without incident, and out of the mist comes a beautiful elfin girl, accompanied by a horned beast with scales and spines, which wears a chain with a pearl on it. I greet her, and she replies telepathically, in a voice 'like the sound of spring water over smooth pebbles'. Somehow I discern that this would be a good time to hand over the Vortigern's barb, and the girl introduces herself as the Faerie Tylwyth Teg. She explains that she wants to see the people of Meldoin freed from Chaladon's power, but her powers do not extend beyond the island (and yet her name can be used to open Chaladon's lair, so there must be some loophole to those limitations).

Continuing on my way, I reach the palace gate. Locked, of course, and that rotten Flying Skull still has the key. So I charge the gate, and some invisible power sweeps me up into the air, high enough to see the whole city from above. Then it lets me go, and I return to the ground rather too rapidly and forcefully to be able to go any further.

Well, I was bound to fail a Proteus sooner or later. I could probably have beaten this one if not for rolling a 7 when I encountered the Skull, but sometimes the dice just don't fall the way you need them to. Apart from that rather unfair bit, there's very little to complain about in the adventure. Well, I suppose if you stretch hard enough, you could probably find a dubious subtext in there, but I imagine the same could be said about almost any gamebook.

Friday, 9 November 2012

As the Flesh Gives Way to Coral

Those of you who've read the entry on the third Golden Dragon adventure may think you already know how I came to acquire the fourth one, Dave Morris' The Eye of the Dragon. After all, I got book three as part of a bundle containing the last four books in the series, so it stands to reason that I got book four in the same bundle. And it is true that there was a book four in there. But that was a duplicate copy. What actually got me into the series in the first place was that a friend was selling off part of his gamebook collection, and about the only gamebook he was selling that I didn't already own a copy of was TEotD. I bought it, enjoyed it, found that the only way to get more of the series was the bundle, bit the bullet, and eventually managed to trade away the extra Eye at what worked out as a profit.

Not that I'd never looked at the book in a shop before then. I leafed through one in the same shop where I peeked into the second book (and bought Scorpion Swamp), and rather dismissed it upon discovering that the trap so obviously being set up in the first section led to my character's being mildly jabbed with a sword. Where was the inventive, gruesome nastiness? Lots of places, as I discovered once I actually gave the book a proper go. Just not in that particular section.

In this adventure my character is a Warrior Mage, so I have a dozen one-shot spells to aid me in my quest. Apart from that, the rules are the same as ever, and my stats are:
Vigour 30
Psi 4
Agility 6
That low Psi score could be a problem, but need not be catastrophic (whereas an Agility that low would be more of a problem). The rules actually say that this is a particularly challenging adventure, but I don't think it comes anywhere near The Temple of Flame in terms of difficulty, and provided I can remember the optimal path, I think I have a chance even with those stats.

My services have been engaged by the High Council of a renowned college. They recently sent an archaeological expedition to the remains of Thalios (this world's equivalent of Atlantis, except that it's not completely sunken and lost, just difficult to access), and in the course of the exploration, Master Scholar Giru discovered the legendary magical artefact known as the Eye of the Dragon. However, the Eye is protected by a variety of magical traps and wards, and an experienced sorcerer is required to deal with them. Clearly not having read the warning in the rules, I reflect that this mission should be an easy one.

A ship drops me off as close to the ruins as it can get, which still means an eight-mile walk across tidal flats. It's late by the time I reach the city gates and meet a quartet of guards, who offer to escort me to Giru. My suspicions raised by something about the way they behave, and the fact that their swords are drawn, I say I'll find my own way to him. They react badly to this, so I draw my sword - and then get to choose between fighting and using magic. Four-against-one fights are not a lot of fun under Golden Dragon rules, so I cast The Deadly Swarm, which creates a swarm of hornets under my command. This causes the guards to flee, but their leader trips over and is fatally stung.

I listen to the man's dying words, and learn that the men were genuinely an escort sent for me by Giru. Not long after Giru sent news of his discovery, the archaeological team came under attack by large numbers of Kappa, who now roam Thalios. The guards were supposed to ensure that I made it to Giru without any trouble, but I needn't feel guilty about having set a cloud of stinging insects on them, as they were intercepted by Kappa along the way, and hypnotised into becoming would-be assassins.

The Kappa in this book have little to do with the mythical Japanese beasts of the same name. Both species are aquatic, but that's pretty much where the resemblance ends. This lot are made of living coral, with pearls for eyes, and (as has already been demonstrated) the more powerful ones have mind-controlling abilities. A fun bunch, obviously.

I cross the plaza, reflecting that a lot of this city will get submerged at high tide, and hoping to find Giru before then. Catching sight of a Kappa (with no explanation provided for any reader too impatient or distrustful to have heard the dying guard's tale), I decide to avoid unnecessary combat, and hide in the grounds of the nearby Temple of Swords. As I recall, the rewards for fighting the four-armed idol that's in the actual building don't justify the risk, so I don't investigate the Temple further.

Still, there are parts of the city that do warrant exploring (would it surprise you to learn that failure is guaranteed by not nosing around in the right places?), so I head into the alleys west of the plaza. Not wanting to attract the wrong kind of attention, I avoid using my light source, and blunder around in the near-darkness until I hear a sword being drawn and a voice ordering me to drop my moneybag. Refusing to be intimidated, I spin round to confront... a slumped corpse with a still-living mynah bird on its shoulder. Based on the mynah's vocabulary, I deduce that the dead man was a pirate (his mahogany pegleg is a bit of a hint, too). A bottle is clasped in one hand, and a quick sniff reveals the contents to be vinegar. I take both bottle and pegleg in case I should need to bribe an amputee who wants to open a chip shop (stranger things have happened in gamebooks). The mynah wants to accompany me as well, but a sidekick given to random outbursts of "Yarr!" and similar clichés doesn't go well with stealthy exploration.

The alley leads to a quadrangle by the remains of the Amber Pantechnicon. I hide from a couple of patrolling Kappa, who are consulting a plaque one of them was carrying. This is a nice little bit of incidental detail - living under the sea, the Kappa make their maps on something more durable than paper. Still keen to stay out of trouble as much as the optimal path will permit, I sneak south down the Avenue of Sphinxes.

My gamebook-sense tingles as I pass a mansion. I mean, there's no particular reason to take an interest in this unidentified building and no others, but I get the option of entering it anyway. And from past attempts at the book, I know that there are effectively two ways of winning this adventure. One follows a pretty narrow path, and cannot be completed without an item found in this building. The other is a lot tougher dice-wise, and cannot be completed without an item found in this building. You know what? I think I'll go in.

In the grounds is a bronze statue of a warrior, which I do not approach. My instincts warn me that danger lurks within the mansion, but I enter anyway. In the hall I find a gibbering adventurer, white-haired from shock, who babbles about having sought shelter from a storm in here, along with his ill-fated friend Wulfric. Ignoring him for the moment, I head upstairs and am confronted with two doors. Which is the unsafe one? The one I try, drat it. That's the second consecutive adventure in which I've blundered into in a man-trap.

Behind the other door, grey candles illuminate a trio of Gloomviles playing jacks within a pentacle. They invite me to join them. I respond by blowing out the candles, which causes the Gloomviles to vanish. After I snuff the first one out, the others plead to be spared, but I 'know them to be irredeemable beings who deserve no mercy'. The spectre of my character from a much earlier attempt at the adventure briefly appears in order to complain that it would have helped if that little detail had been made apparent before the book asked if I wanted to play to play the Gloomviles' game. Once the Gloomviles are gone, there's nothing to keep me from helping myself to the one item that remains in the room, an ivory ticket to the Thaliosian Arena.

Further on I reach a door with a skeleton sprawled in front of it. Not the most conventional welcome mat. Nevertheless, I go through, finding myself in a rather odd hall. Steps lead down in front of me, and at the far end of the hall, more steps lead up to an alcove containing a large bowl. The floor, and the bottom who-knows-how-much of both stairways cannot be seen because of an unnatural darkness that covers them. My Orb of Illumination is of little use in this darkness, and to cross the hall without going slightly utterly insane along the way, I have to use my Mind Shield spell. The bowl at the far end contains a large sheet of a strange material that folds up into a remarkably tiny bundle.

Returning to the corridor outside, I search a little more, finding two alabaster jars. I identify the contents of one as a Potion of Wind Walking, but cannot tell what's in the other. If it turns out to be a Potion of Invisible Box, I will have little choice but to conclude that this was once the home of a Mime.

Back downstairs I surprise the fear-crazed man, who wasn't expecting me to survive. Turning my attention to the ground-level doors that lead further into the building, I step through, almost tripping over a severely chipped battleaxe, and find Wulfric. Well, most of him. His companion rants about being trapped in the mansion until I yell at him to shut up.

Ahead of me is an unconventional architectural feature: a wide pit, at the bottom of which rusty metal spikes protrude from the waters of the stream that flows through it. Why would anyone ever want one of those in their home? The pit is spanned by a narrow plank, and my Agility is sufficient to allow me to cross it without falling off. On the other side is a gallery, with a large white mask hanging at the far end. Only, as I draw closer, I discover that it's not a mask, but a Dungeon Devil: a predator shaped like a human head, with a mane of sharp corundum spines. Don't ask how ecology works on this world.

I kill the Dungeon Devil with ease, and break off a spine as a souvenir before heading back across the pit. Ignoring the cellar because the book won't let me go down there any more, I prepare to leave, and Wulfric's friend tries to dissuade me from leaving. I snap at him, stomp out through the front door, and almost get my head pulped by the warrior statue, which has been animated and programmed to kill anyone who leaves the house (well, why should the former owner's anti-burglar measures make any more sense than any of the other absurdities I've found in his home?).

Diving out of the way of the statue's brazen fist leaves me rather vulnerable to a lethal stomping, but before the statue can put its foot down, the whimpering wreck from the hall goes berserk, unable to face the thought of seeing someone else killed in front of him. The blows he rains on the statue damage only his sword, and the statue kills him with ease, but his sacrifice has bought me enough time to get up. I flee back into the mansion, the statue pursuing me Terminator-style, and race across the plank. Which can bear the weight of a human, but not a human-sized mass of bronze, so the statue's inexorable pursuit comes to a vaguely Wile E. Coyote-style ending. The pit's a bit too wide to jump, but that Potion of Wind Walking enables me to cross it unscathed.

As I leave the mansion, I muse on the nature of heroism. "Does it show in a strutting contempt for those weaker than oneself - or in a willingness to face up to one's fear?" Tricky. Maybe once I've solved that one, I can move onto a more challenging question, like 'Is setting one's head on fire the best way to cure athlete's foot?'

Continuing down the Avenue of Sphinxes, I see the statues that gave it its name. An unexpected voice addresses me, and I briefly assume that the mynah is back before realising that one of the sphinx statues is speaking to me. It explains that they were once the guardians of Thalios, but are no longer able to defend it against the Kappa. I explain my quest, and to assist me, the sphinxes tell me of the gates of horn and ivory. Rather wonderfully, I respond by saying I don't have time for all this cryptic nonsense, and demand some more comprehensible advice. With a sigh (and, doubtless, speaking as slowly and loudly as a stereotypical English tourist asking for directions on the continent), a sphinx tells me to go back to the Amber Pantechnicon, so I return whence I came, briefly hiding from a group of Kappa who drag a corpse across the quadrangle, escorted by some giant Sentinel Crabs.

The gate to the Pantechnicon has rusty hinges, which squeak loudly as I open them. So much for stealth. Passing the mouth of a chute in one wall, I head for an unlooted alcove, where a jewelled harp hangs from a golden thread behind a transparent barrier with a vending machine-esque slot at the bottom. Having already disposed of the Gloomviles with a burst of, "Out, out, brief candle!", I now use my Dagger of the Mind spell to cut the thread and acquire the harp.

Perhaps fearful that I'm about to break into an impromptu rendition of China in Your Hand, a Kappa fires a bolt of energy at me from a strange sceptre. The book won't let me disarm him and use the weapon for myself, so I have nothing to gain by loitering while he tries to improve his aim. Hurling myself into the chute I noticed earlier, I make my escape, but the chute turns out to be extremely long and slippery, so I've built up quite a speed by the time I approach the bottom. The Invulnerability spell, while less effective than its name might suggest, does provide protection for long enough that I take no damage as I hit the wall across from the chute exit at something approaching terminal velocity.

No pursuers follow, so I assume that the Kappa assumed that I didn't survive. Ascending steps back to ground level, I see hordes of Kappa searching for me in the quadrangle, and realise that I was mistaken in believing them to have been mistaken. Before any more such hilarity can ensue, the mynah makes a surprise reappearance and steals my Orb of Illumination. I'm going to need that later on, so I pursue the thieving bird up six flights of stairs to the roof. Seeing the mynah about to take off, I hit it with a Befuddle spell, and it abandons its prize and erratically flies away.

As I retrieve the Orb, I catch sight of a large block of ice or crystal at the far end of the roof. Naturally, I decide to take a closer look, and this is important enough that I use my Dodge spell rather than relying on the dice to avoid falling when part of the roof gives way beneath me. Incidentally, falling through can lead to one of the nastier Instant Deaths in the book: using the Invulnerability spell as the top of the building collapses onto you works fine in the moment when the chunks of masonry land, but that just leaves you with several tons of rubble on top of you...

But I avoid all of that and reach the mysterious block. Upon closer inspection, I can see a humanoid figure trapped inside it. So I play the harp. The first note I play resonates within the crystal, growing in volume until the block explodes (by which time I have already taken cover, as I'm not as stupid as you might think someone who plays the harp at big crystals would be).

Getting up again, I see that the erstwhile occupant of the block is a large humanoid insect. Zpeaking in a zilly buzzing aczent, he introduzez himzelf az Lord Mantizz, offerz to reward me for releazing him, and leadz me down zeveral flightz of ztairs to hiz zecret treazure room. Somewhat perversely, the only good thing to do here is refuse to take any loot. This offends Mantiss, who is an alarmingly good fighter (inflicting Instant Death on a double one), so I run away. Determined to punish his rescuer for declining a reward, he gives chase, making a spectacular grasshopper-like leap from the balcony to the stairs I am descending. I cast my Gust of Wind spell while he's in mid-air, sending him off-course, and he falls rather further than he was expecting to. Descending at a more sedate pace to join him, I find him trying to drag himself across the floor to where his rapier landed, and commit insecticide. Relieving him of a tuning fork and his Glove of Unerring Dexterity (part of what made him such a good fighter), I leave the building.

Returning to the quadrangle, I stick to the shadows so as not to be seen by the Kappa. Alas, this does not also enable me to evade detection by the Sentinel Crabs. One of them gives me a nasty nip, and several of its friends seem keen to do likewise, so I flee back east. The Crabs come after me until I pass the dead pirate, at which point they decide that non-mobile prey makes for a simpler meal, and stop for a feeding frenzy.

Reluctant to hang around in case the Crabs remember what brought them over this way, I head south across the Bridge of Blue Skulls, and am accosted by a beggar. I hand over a couple of coins, wondering how he usually makes a living (and what he needs the cash for) in an abandoned city, cut off from the mainland by the sea, and subject to periodic flooding. That's actually my in-text reaction, though it strikes me that, after the mansion and Mantiss, it's a little late to begin musing on stuff that doesn't make sense. The beggar tells me a little about someone called Nuckelavee, who is apparently 'much worse than them coral fellers', but doesn't like fresh water, and then hobbles off elsewhere.

The only building down here is the Citadel of Conundrums, which I enter despite a sense of dread. It's dark in there, so I'd be in trouble if I didn't have my Orb with me. A metal door marked with a glyph catches my attention, and I recognise the symbol as a musical note. One I can't quite coax out of the harp.

What works on TV isn't always effective in real life. Or gamebooks, for that matter.

By contrast, the tuning fork produces the precise note I need. And that's not one of those wacky coincidences that crop up so often in gamebooks: behind the door that the correct note unlocks lives a friend of Mantiss (with a big spider sitting on his shoulder), who is not exactly overjoyed to learn how I acquired the fork. He threatens me with 'the power of a true sorcerer', and the spider's eyes begin to glow. I kill the spider, and the man enigmatically observes, "There'll be another one. There always is." He then gives me his finest treasures: a ship in a bottle, a Potion of Wind Walking and a Wristband of Fire, and I leave before things get any weirder.

Further on, I reach a gallery. Shadows begin to advance on me in a menacing manner, so I hurry towards the exits, one of which is framed by a pair of antlers, the other by two mammoth's tusks. Realising that that sphinx wasn't talking drivel after all, I pick the right exit. The shadows follow me through it, transforming into twenty armed and hostile gladiators, but they remain 'fleeting illusions', and can be eliminated with ease.

The passage leads through a charnel-smelling room with half-dried blood coating the walls and floor. Have I strayed into an entry for the Turner Prize? After going through it, I find myself leaving bloody footprints behind me. I have the option of washing my boots clean, but I know I could wind up needing the contents of my water bottle, the dead pirate's vinegar, the unidentified potion in the alabaster jar, and/or the Potion of Wind Walking, and I don't have any other liquids I could use, so I'll just have to take the consequences of leaving a trail.

Unsurprisingly, something starts to follow me. I decide to try and ambush my pursuer and, as authorial contrivance would have it, choose to do so at precisely the spot where there's a powerful magnet set into the tunnel roof, so my sword leaps from my hands and sticks to the ceiling, leaving me defenceless against my foe. Which turns out to be a Blood Fiend, a massive bipedal crocodile-thing. Okay, I'm not entirely defenceless: I could try poking at the Fiend with a Dungeon Devil spine, or attempt to prop its jaws open with a mahogany pegleg. Or take the much safer option of casting my Burning Tiger spell, which creates pretty much exactly what you'd expect based on its title. This savage blend of flame, fang and claw is more than a match for the brute, and I use the Wristband of Fire to heat the panel above my head until it loses its magnetism, so I can get my sword back.

Continuing on my way, I pass through a room filled with skeletal remains and rusting weapons, which is only there to provide a sub-par weapon for anyone who couldn't retrieve their sword. Then I have to choose between a door and a side passage, and drat it, I pick the wrong option again. More tiresome than catastrophic, as it just means getting into a tough fight (and I no longer need the water or mystery potion), but I'd have preferred the safer encounter that can be had thanks to the item I've just missed. Still, I chose the exit, and there's no point in cheating, so out I go.

From here I can see the Consul's Palace, which may be where Giru is sheltering. Problem is, there's a hundred-metre stretch of water between here and there. If I'd gone the right way back in the Citadel, now would be another good time to pull out the harp and use the power of Bardsmanship (and a big hello to anyone from who actually gets that in-joke). As it is, I have a number of options, but they all ultimately lead the same way.

My backpack contains a ship in a bottle, but I'm gonna need a bigger boat. Fortuitously, there's one tied up at the end of a jetty close by. Less conveniently, it has no oars. On a morbid whim, I cast a Séance spell and try to summon up the ghost of the beggar to ask if he knows where they are. This will only work if he's died since we last met, but luckily for me (albeit not for him), he met a patrol of Kappa not long after we parted company. He may have made some unwise comment about the value of pearls - certainly something inspired his killers to remove his eyes. But he doesn't need eyes to tell me that he saw the pirate hiding his oars under a nearby bush.

Retrieving them I start to row across the water, and run aground on a sandbank. Now I face a tricky decision, as I know what's imminent. Do I cast my Healing spell, wasting half the Vigour gain it would provide, but facing my next enemies at full strength, or do I save it for after the fight and risk not surviving to use it? This may (may) be my last fight: I forget certain specifics of the endgame on my chosen path. Better to heal now than not get the opportunity later.

The sandbank connects with the shore to which I was heading, so I continue my journey on foot, sinking almost knee-deep into the mud with every step. It's a miserable slog even before two Lich Knights rise up and block my way. They would have killed me if I hadn't used that Healing spell. Or if I weren't wearing Mantiss' Glove. Actually, thanks to a few very bad rolls, I do die, but thanks to the aforementioned I got rid of one of the Lich Knights first, so technically 'they' don't kill me. Just the second one does. Not that that's much consolation.

Well, that was odder than I'd remembered it being. And I never even made it to the City of Thieves-tastic 'pick randomly from three options, and fail on two of them' ending. But then, I didn't get to City of ThievesCity of Thieves-tastic 'pick randomly from three options, and fail on two of them' ending because of a harsh fight not far from the finale, so that's consistent.