Monday, 15 April 2013

There Is Something So Strange About This Place and All in It

Just under a fortnight ago, I said that I'd make the hundredth playthrough for this blog a second attempt at one of the adventures I'd failed, and let my readers vote on which book to try again. Four votes were cast (one of them by means other than a comment on the blog), all for different titles, and after some consideration I've decided to go for Dracula's Castle, the first of J.H. Brennan's Horror Classics gamebooks.

I shan't go into much detail about any encounters that go the same way as they did on my first attempt. As before, I take on the rôle of Jonathan Harker, solicitor's clerk and undercover occult investigator, but this time round I have the following stats:

Life Points: 100 (inevitably)
Speed: 6
Courage: 6 (much quicker off the mark in battle than Harker Mk I)
Strength: 4
Skill: 1 (but not as effective a fighter)
Psi: 3 (nor as adept in the field of the arcane)

Better on the whole, but that low Skill could be bad news.

Abandoned outside Castle Dracula, I head up the driveway and explore more of the network of paths that runs around the grounds. Before long I find a new dead end, which proves an opportunity for Brennan to reuse a gag that first cropped up in one of his Grail Quest books: having my character make an annoyed exclamation, but putting it in code so as not to fall foul of the censors. Not that the average gamebook reader is likely to have much trouble deciphering the encrypted oaths, but in order to keep this post from being blocked by overzealous Net Nannies, I shan't translate my muttered, 'TJMMZ NF!', instead leaving it for my readers to decide whether or not they dare to figure out the sort of language being slipped under the radar in the book.

Things get a little geographically confusing before I wind up at the belltower where Rasputin is staying. Once I have the demented faith healer tagging along to provide post-combat succour, I make my way to the folly that houses the wax museum, and take a bit of a beating from the resident Norman Bates-alike. Still, between Rasputin's ministrations and automatic healing (which isn't the same as Natural Healing, a potentially fatal process), I'm back in reasonable condition by the time I reach the graveyard, where I eliminate the Zombie with little difficulty.

This time round I'll take a chance and attack the Gargoyle. Which may be a bad idea as, despite being made of stone, the thing can fly, and is thus more difficult to hit than regular opponents. Still, sometimes these risks need taking. After a few rounds of being rather decisively thrashed, I decide that it's time to give the rules on fleeing combat a test run, and a couple of lucky rolls allow me to extricate myself from the fight while still alive.

Proceeding to the courtyard, I evade the ghostly young lady, and call in on the Happy Undertaker and friends, partly to acquire the minor protection against Vampire-inflicted damage available to members of the Dead Party, and partly because the encounter takes up enough sections that automatic healing will restore me to a less near-death status.

After that, I decide to take a closer look at the stables. Which turn out not to be stables, but kennels. And judging by the smell, they're not for dogs, but Wolves. My supposition is confirmed when a lupine sextet mistakes me for lunch. The combat rules are exasperatingly vague about fighting multiple opponents, so I'll tackle them one at a time. No, on second thoughts, looking at their stats, I'll run away quite quickly.

Back in the courtyard, I hide from the ghost again. Now, unless I want to risk the quicksand in the sunken garden, I'm pretty much limited to approaching the castle itself or waiting for the Wolves to quieten down and then sneaking past into the orchard. I opt for the castle door, mainly because I remember that the direct approach isn't the way to get in, and as long as there's not some booby-trap I've forgotten, wasting time trying to open the door means that bit more automatic healing. And there is no trap. Phew!

I may need the key that's found in the sunken garden, so I suppose I'd better risk exploring. No, that was a bad idea. I'd forgotten the specifics of the attribute check to survive the quicksand, but Brennan's failure to acknowledge that it's possible to roll equal to as well as above or below makes it technically inescapable.

You know what? I'm not accepting the impossible situation. Going with the more-common-in-actually-playable-gamebooks 'roll equal to or below to succeed' variant still makes failure more likely than success, but those odds are preferable to the 'PPQT! Didn't think of that contingency!' shambles that exists. And I narrowly make it. Well, given that the second roll is 'get 1 on a die or fail', I suppose 'narrowly' is a bit redundant, but the point is, I survive.

A second attempt at opening the castle door proves equally fruitless. I knew it would, but I failed my secret door check the first time round, and thought it worth trying again. And yes, that does mean I get a bit more automatic healing, but that's a fringe benefit of a legitimate tactic. As is the automatic healing I get for trying (equally unsuccessfully) to find a secret door in the vicinity of Mr. Unimportant's workshop.

Orchard time, then. I kill the Vampire Apple with one blow, and have enough Speed to avoid being throttled by the tree when I cut a stake from it. In this instance, the text does specify what happens on a roll equal to the stat (not that it matters, as I didn't, but it makes the error in the sunken garden even more sloppy).

There's another way out of the orchard, but if I remember rightly, it's a lethal trap. So unless I want to test the reliability of that memory (which has certain rather obvious disadvantages if I am right), all I can do is keep revisiting the few locations that are still accessible until I find a secret door. Playability never was Brennan's strong point...

I'm back to full Life Points by the time I discover that there isn't actually a secret door by the castle door anyway. A return visit to the kennels turns up no secret doors, and while I'm only attacked by four Wolves this time, that's still too many. Another successful retreat, but I do get badly bitten as I flee. No secret door outside the Happy Undertaker's, either. Nor in the yard outside the kennels.

Logically, I shouldn't have to fight a new Vampire Apple every time I enter the orchard, as I wouldn't be so dim as to get lured up the tree again. But this is a book by J.H. Brennan, and since so much of his illogic is a thing of beauty, I think I have to endure this not-so-good example thereof.

There's no secret door in the orchard, either. So I try the probably-lethal door, visit Mr. Unimportant again and hope to find a concealed exit from within his quarters, or attempt to encounter a manageable number of Wolves, succeed on a secret door check while in the kennels, and find something. It'd be nice to be allowed to go south from the courtyard, even if it meant having to face that wretched Gargoyle again.

I was right about that door. Amusingly, I succeeded on my secret door check even as I plummeted down the cliff face. There was none, but that's a good thing: it would be really tiresome if the only way to get anywhere was to blunder into a lethal trap and succeed at a roll that has a 13/18 chance of failure. As it is, the lack of obvious ways to progress after reaching the courtyard is only somewhat tiresome.

Nevertheless, if I have another replay for the blog's 200th playthrough, I don't think this book will be among the nominees.


  1. This story should have started inside Dracula's castle, imo.

  2. Well I was very happy to see that you were were venturing to the castle again. But yeah, pretty random gamebook. Maybe more fun to read about than to play!