Friday, 29 March 2013

All Fun and Games Until Somebody Loses an Eye


The sixth and final Golden Dragon Fantasy Gamebook is Castle of Lost Souls, by Dave Morris and Yve Newnham. As has been previously recounted, I acquired it packaged together with the three preceding books. I have some memories of earlier attempts, but I'll mention them when I get to appropriate points in the narrative rather than listing them all here.

I'm back in generic sword-for-hire territory for this book. At something of a loose end in the peaceful and prosperous town of Lynton, I'm just reflecting ruefully on the lack of demand for my services when a wealthy-looking young man complains about the lack of decent-quality adventurers around. I hurriedly introduce myself, and spend a lengthy paragraph demonstrating my suitability. I'm not entirely convinced that the character I've rolled up will be able to match the degree of competence displayed in the Background, what with having:
Vigour 29
Psi 7
Agility 5
Still, overall that's slightly above average, so provided I can avoid do-or-die Agility rolls, I should have something of a chance.

My employer is Jasper Faze, who fairly recently inherited the family business following the death of his father. The late Luther Faze made his fortune by striking a deal with the arch-demon Slank. Upon Faze's death, Slank came for his soul, and took it back to his Castle, at which point Faze took the tear shed by his daughter at his deathbed and flung it into Slank's face, blinding him in one eye and distracting him for long enough that Faze was able to barricade himself in the Castle library, where he was able to learn how the demon could be destroyed, and how to implant exposition into Jasper's dreams. My mission is to obtain the six items required for slaying Slank, and to use them for that purpose. Depending on how you choose to look at it, I'm either helping a tricky customer wriggle out of a deal, or putting a supernatural loan shark out of business.

The first item is another tear from Faze's daughter, which Jasper has already collected for me. Best not to ask how he got it. Also required are: a four leaf clover, a crystal ball, a fragment of metal from the armour of a chivalrous knight, the ashes of a saint, and the hair of a nun. Remembering that there's a tavern called The Four Leaf Clover in Lynton, I start by heading there, and asking the innkeeper if he sells the right kind of souvenir. He tells me that the inn got its name from the fact that four leaf clovers have been found growing in the beer garden, so I heroically spend the next hour or so carefully scrutinising the lawn until I find what I came for.

In between bouts of sniggering at the weirdo who's been watching grass grow for half the afternoon, some of the inn's patrons mentioned a fete on the far side of town. I decide to see if there's a fortune teller there. Along the way, I see a crowd of people betting on a cock fight, and win a little extra money with a gamble of my own. Winning's easy when you remember the outcome from the last time you played the book.

Next to get my attention is a conjurer who has lucky charms for sale. With one of these, I can automatically succeed at three dice rolls of my choice, though I do have to specify the rolls, and can't retroactively turn a failure into a success. Straight afterwards, I use the charm to ensure that the fat cutpurse who blunders into me doesn't steal it. He runs away, but finds his way blocked by a stack of crates, and repeatedly blunders into my sword while trying to get past me. While he's having a little lie down, I give him an example of my technique for acquiring valuables from others, which is rather more effective.

Outside a beer tent I see a gypsy lad romancing a country maid, and play gooseberry for as long as it takes to get directions to the nearest owner of a crystal ball, the fortune teller Gypsy Gayl. Gayl turns out not to be a stereotypical crone, but a 'ravishing sultry beauty'. The accompanying illustration doesn't do a great job of conveying this, perhaps in part because of the way Gayl's contorting herself in an unsuccessful attempt to fit into the border of the picture.

I know from past attempts at the book that there are many ways of getting what I'm after here, but two are better than the rest. One will cost me a point of Vigour, permanently, the other is cheaper but unethical. Some would argue that I'm already on shaky ground, morally speaking, either for having accepted the quest or for having dealt with the cutpurse the way I did. But if I am already compromised, that's no reason to further sully my conscience, and if I'm not, why change that? I ask her to tell my fortune and, after viewing a glimpse of my future, she anoints her crystal ball with a drop of my life-blood, then gives me a spare crystal ball she just happened to have lying about nearby.

Mildly confusingly, the book now states that all I need is the fragment of chivalrous knight's armour. There's a joust on tomorrow, so I attend that, and soon catch sight of a promising candidate, busy professing his love to a noble lady. Knowing that this book's co-authors were engaged by the time Mr. Morris finished work on Dragon Warriors, the RPG he and fellow GDFG-writer Oliver Johnson went on to publish, I must admit to a little curiosity as to what the number of romantic attachments depicted in the book indicates about Morris & Newnham's relationship back when they were writing CoLS.

But I digress. Reasoning that the sort of knight I seek is the kind of man who'd be willing to assist an adventurer on a heroic quest, I dispense with subterfuge, and just ask if he'd let me have a little bit of his armour to help me defeat a demon. He offers me an entire gauntlet. I point out that I don't need that much (and, based on my knowledge of the use to which the required fragment will be put, am amused at the thought of attempting it with the entire gauntlet), so he cuts off a sliver of his helmet, possibly doing no good to his sword in the process, and lets me have that.

I then return to the Faze mansion, where Jasper suggests that, Lynton not being a particularly holy place, I'd be better off looking for the last two items on the way to Slank's Castle. Which belatedly explains the earlier reference to only needing to find the armour fragment, but is still something of a continuity error. Before I set off, Jasper provides me with some Salve of Healing (with a decidedly unpleasant list of ingredients), a talisman that will identify me to the soul of Luther Faze, and some advice about the route ahead.

Before long I reach a bridge. A man emerges from under it, and demands a toll of 4 Gold Pieces. This is a mildly nasty part of the book: anyone who didn't buy the lucky charm had a 50% chance of having all their gold stolen (and that's not the only way of winding up out of cash), and I'm not aware of any way of acquiring enough money to pay the toll between the theft and the bridge. The toll collector is a good fighter, so a penniless character stands a not insignificant chance of dying in battle with him, and even if an impecunious hero should defeat him, the killing can have adverse consequences later on. But I wasn't robbed, so I just pay up. Reasoning that he probably knows the area better than I, I ask if he knows where I could find the other items I need. He can't help on the nun's hair front (and I shall discreetly pass over the most obvious solution to the problem he raises), but is able to provide directions to a nearby shrine.

The shrine contains an urn, which starts to glow as I approach. Undeterred, I draw nearer, and am subjected to divine judgement. This world's gods evidently have no problem with my quest, or my treatment of the cutpurse, as they allow me to take the urn, which contains the ashes I need. Problematically, I'd have been found guilty and had to defend myself against an Angelic Executioner if I'd killed anyone else. Like a toll collector I'd have had no choice but to fight if I'd been robbed. Or the four thugs who'd have tried to murder me if I'd been gullible at the start of the adventure. I'd say the local deities' idea of justice is a little flawed.

Continuing on my way, I see a band of robbers attacking a coach. Not liking the odds, I snipe at the bandits with my bow. Alas, my aim is abysmal (I needed to hit with at least three out of five shots, which was too many for the lucky charm to guarantee success, so I rolled for the first three shots. If they'd all been on target, no need to use the charm. If one or two had missed, I could have made up the total by using the charm. But all three missed, so the target was already unattainable, and using the charm for the final two shots would have been a waste.) and four robbers converge on me.

I could run away, but that would require an Agility roll to avoid being hit by all four foes, so I'll take my chances in battle. I might get lucky, and if I don't, I can still flee before my Vigour drops so low that a failed dodge would kill me. The rules allow me to pick my target in each round, so I focus on the relatively puny Jorkiss the Sly. Two lucky rolls later, he's dead and the odds are improved (plus the penalty for flight is diminished). Now I turn my attention to Crazy Nial (how come I know their names?), and manage to cut him down without taking a scratch. Of the two remaining, Boso Headcut is weaker, so I attack him next (noting, incidentally, that the likelihood of my winning a round is above 50% for the first time this fight - the luck I've had so far in melee has been comparable to the badness of the luck that forced me into the fight in the first place). Things go less well now the odds are more favourable, and I take a few blows before changing my opponent's name to Boso Headless, but against Uknor the Barbarian I fare almost as well as I did when he had two or three cronies alongside him.

As my last opponent falls to the ground, the robbers who were concentrating on the coach's guards decide that it's time to cut their losses, and they flee. The coach's occupant turns out to be on her way to a convenient convent, where she is to be initiated into their order. As her guards are all dead, I offer to accompany her to her destination.

I couldn't remember whether or not any healing was to be had at the convent, but I held off on using any Salve until I got there. A wise choice, as the Sisters of Pure Adoration bring me back up to my maximum Vigour, which is better than I'd expected. I'm not the only guest at the convent tonight: a group of soldiers are there too. Their captain seems a bit monomaniacal about dealing with brigands, and I know from my first failure at this book that his definition of 'brigand' encompasses 'anyone who killed a toll collector and was twit enough to hang on to evidence of their crime'. Having learned from that mistake, I manage not to get summarily executed, and am merely creeped out by the man's obsessiveness.

Before leaving, I have an audience with the Mother Superior, who provides me with a strand shorn from the head of the young lady I brought to the convent. I then depart quickly, before the captain can decide that my request shows me to be the kind of deviant that he is sworn to purge from the roads he patrols.

My next encounter is a man fishing from a stream. I greet him, and he asks me to hold the rod while he fetches a net for the fish he has hooked. I oblige, and once the fish is on land, the man rewards me with a Ring of Light and tells me, 'As a special favour to you, today I shall dine on fish.' There's something vaguely ominous about that, so I thank him and hurry off, wondering what that creepy captain would make of the freaky fisherman. Or vice versa...

While passing between two hills, I encounter a Mountain Lion. The artist has omitted one of its hind legs in the illustration. I hesitate, and the Lion shows me that it has a thorn stuck in one of its paws (but not an actual missing leg). I remove the thorn, partly because I remember the story of Androcles, and partly because the lion politely asks me. No, talking animals are not commonplace in this world. But I'm not the type to go asking large predatory felines questions that they may consider impertinent. To thank me for my assistance, the lion warns me that there's a variant on the 'one always lies, one always tells the truth' puzzle up ahead.

By mid-afternoon I reach a fork in the path. One way leads where I want to go, the other to certain death. Two goblins sit at the fork and, despite my opening with an idiotic question (equivalent to 'Are you truthful or a liar?'), I get a response that tells me enough that I can work out how truthful the speaking Goblin is, and treat the directions he gives me with the respect they merit.

Before long I reach the Swamps of Bosh, in which Slank's Castle can be found... somewhere. Jasper warned me that the mist in the marsh creates illusions, so I pay no attention to the crystal ball and wisps of hair that I see nearby. When night falls, I make camp, waking with a start to find myself surrounded by Marshons. These creatures are drawn to light and colour, and my campfire and the glint of the moon on my sword have caught their attention. While not hostile, they're still potentially dangerous in such large numbers, so I use that Ring of Light, creating a dazzling flash that puts them off shiny things for the rest of the night.

The next day I set off again, and before long I see the Castle. It doesn't stay put. Making a certain incorrect choice here would lead to an encounter that could ultimately prove beneficial, but a lot could go wrong, and I'm not convinced that the risks outweigh the potential advantage, so I'm not going to wait for Slank to set the Chonchons (giant heads that fly by beating their oversized ears like wings) on me. Looking through the crystal ball, I can see a shimmering green path leading to the Castle. Walking on this, I arrive very quickly.

Before crossing the drawbridge, I look around, catching sight of a light in a first floor window (that's the British meaning of 'first floor', as in one up from the ground floor). Entering the Castle, I waste no time at ground level, but head for where I saw the light. This means missing out on a couple of encounters with individuals who have something wrong with one eye - both of them Slank in disguise - which bring no benefit but can lead to defeat if mishandled.

The door to the room I noticed from outside is barred from within. I knock, and a spyhole opens. Upon seeing the talisman from Jasper, Luther Faze's soul lets me into the library, and he explains what must be done with the rest of the items I collected.

What happens next is an intriguing aspect of the book which can easily go unnoticed. The interior of the Castle is variable. If I continue along the corridor, I'll have a variety of encounters on the way to three doors with inscriptions. If I first open the door on the opposite side of the corridor, I will have a completely different set of encounters en route to the three doors. Personally, I prefer the variant experienced by ignoring the door, so that's what I'll go with.

The next door after that leads to a room where I'd need the item that can only be acquired from the Chonchons, so I'll pass it by. Further along the corridor, eight arrows have been set out on the floor in a pattern: two squares, touching at a corner. I take them, though I'm not sure I need them.

Just beyond the arrows is a door, and beyond the door is a trapdoor that dumps me in a maze with mirrored walls. The first time I reached this point, I wandered around for a while, eventually getting out by virtue of looking out for section numbers that hadn't become familiar through repetition, and always choosing them. At some later point I realised that a clue to the correct path through the maze is provided, and by acting on that information I am able to get through the maze with a minimum of effort today. If the maze is even really there, that is...

Further on is a room containing a coil of rope and a pit covered with a grating. There's a man with an eyepatch in the pit, wanting to be helped out. Slank's mastery of disguise doesn't extend to concealing the damage inflicted by that tear. I pass by, and reach a stretch of corridor where a sword dangles overhead from a gold thread. Guess what happens to any character who steps under it.

The next room houses one of Slank's customers, tied by the wrists to a chin-up bar, and with a red-hot metal plate beneath her bare feet. She can pull herself up, but eventually she tires, and drops back down, so her feet touch the metal and get burned. There may be a soul/sole pun at work here. Regardless, it's a pretty horrid set-up, so I cut the woman free and move her away from the metal plate. She rewards me with a pouch that increases my Psi (even above its starting level) and three silver coins which she says may show me the way. Before she can elaborate, she passes out. Oh, and as regards the hanging sword just before this room, if you guessed 'the thread snaps and the adventurer is lethally skewered', you get laughed at for thinking that the writers/Slank would do something that obvious.

After a while, steps lead up to a landing with three doors. Each bears an inscription regarding the advisability of passing through a certain door. It's a logic puzzle, but lacking enough data to be solvable - unless you have and can work out how to use those silver coins. It took me a long while, but eventually I figured out that the coins indicate the number of true and false statements here, and that's all you need to know in order to work out the truth. Okay, so I could also have drawn on memory to note which door leads to a lengthy Instant Death that, eventually, indirectly points out, 'You just got turned to stone by a Gorgon'. Beautifully written, as I recall, but rather pretentious.

Anyway, I go through the correct door, and find myself in a kitchen. A noxious broth simmers over a fire, and a door leads to the larder. Ignoring the dead adventurers hanging on meathooks (a bit too ripe), I turn my attention to the storage jars, some of which contain more conventional ingredients than others. I may take up to three, and pick red pepper, salt, and frogs' toes. Not all of which I'm going to need, but adding a touch of mystery about what's actually useful here may spice this entry up a little.

Beyond the kitchen is a hall, with a blazing log fire, a bearskin rug, and a poleaxe on the wall. Yes, the rug does animate and attack. But that's actually quite a clever bit of gamebook design: once I've killed the rug, I may take just one item from the hall, and the only thing that's of any use further on is the rug. But I'm sure I wasn't the only player to pick the poleaxe the first time I got this far, because who'd expect lugging a dead animated furnishing around to be the wise choice?

Stairs lead down to a pillared ballroom with a polished white marble floor. Or so it seems: the floor is actually solid ice, and there's a demonic mask (with one eyehole) several inches below the surface. Wrapping the rug around myself to keep warm, I try to extract the mask, but the ice refreezes as quickly as I chip away at it. This is where an item from the kitchen comes in handy, and I'm not talking frogs' toes. A substantial quantity of the right condiment helps me melt away enough ice to get to the mask. This is the source of the cold, so I can't take it with me, but as Luther Faze told me of Slank's aversion to four leaf clovers, I can at least ensure that the demon won't be able to get close enough to the mask to use it himself.

A spiral staircase leads all the way to the topmost chamber of a tower. Wind shrieks through the windows, stormclouds gather outside, and a curtain screens off an alcove. As I head towards it, an inner voice urges me to become Slank's servant, and I must succeed at a Psi roll to resist it. Or I could use one of the remaining charges of my lucky charm, because while the odds of failure are only 1 in 6 thanks to the Psi-enhancing pouch, this attempt at the book has already featured enough statistically unlikely rolls that I'm wary of assuming the low odds to accurately reflect the likelihood of my being subverted.

I use the charm, and shrug off the effects of Slank's magic. Flinging the curtain aside, I behold the owner of the Castle, unmasked and disfigured. He looks even worse after I've thrown young Miss Faze's tear into his functional eye. As he screams and howls, I get out my bow (now restrung with the nun's hair), load it with the arrow to which Luther Faze attached the armour fragment (an arrow with a metal gauntlet on the tip would look silly, wouldn't it?), and fire. Straight through his heart, killing him. But at the moment he's only mostly dead. Still, a quick sprinkling with the saint's ashes (no, Shake 'n' Vac is not an acceptable substitute) negates his ability to revive himself, and he properly dies. The souls imprisoned in the Castle are freed, and I return to the Faze mansion to claim my reward.

Unlike his father, Jasper doesn't go looking for ways of getting out of the deal he struck.

So, a fairly straightforward adventure. Not beyond the capabilities of a lucky first-timer, but this is one instance where it's true that following the optimal path makes things a good deal easier. No guarantee of success, though - on one previous occasion I was similarly unlucky with my arrows, but got carved up in the resultant fight. And evading that battle leads to added difficulties in other areas. So, not unchallenging, but not unduly harsh either. And while it has its flaws in places, there are quirks and innovations to compensate for them. All in all, quite a decent end to the series.

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