Monday, 22 April 2013

Think About Direction, Wonder Why You Haven't

Quite a few gamebook fantasy worlds have had pseudo-Egypts inserted into them for the sake of a 'Curse of the Mummy'-type adventure. It looks as if that's what's going on in the bonus adventure in the fifth of the Mongoose Publishing Lone Wolf reissues, The Tomb of the Majhan, by Richard Ford. The supporting character from the main adventure I play in this one is Tipasa the Wanderer, an adventurer who has for many years sought the treasure-and-trap-packed burial place of ancient rulers that lies lost in the desert. At the time the mini-adventure is set, I think I have finally worked out where the lost tomb is, and have been heading into the desert for four days. Cue ominous sandstorm...

Before I actually get going, I should create my character.
Combat Skill 13
Endurance 26
I get to choose one of three fields of knowledge, and pick the Way of the Scholar, which gives me a good understanding of ancient languages, codes and the like. I can also take two items from a list of five, and in view of that below-average CS, I'll take the Scimitar and Shield. The list also reminds me of some of the problems I'll be facing when I play the LW adventure that TTotM accompanies, as it includes a duplicate of an item that can be helpful in book 5, which Lone Wolf would have acquired in his third adventure if the version of him I played in it had lived long enough.

Oh well, on with the adventure. One of the fields of knowledge I passed up was the Way of the Nomad, which would have provided me with desert survival skills. Just the sort of thing that would come in handy when caught in a sandstorm. So it's a little surprising that section 1 effectively says, 'After travelling through the sandstorm for three days, you find the tomb,' rather than inflicting some penalty on anyone without desert lore. Then again, the one I actually picked makes no difference to whether or not I find the way into the pyramid's topmost chamber (the only part of it not buried in sand). Nor does my specialist knowledge provide any kind of hint now I reach the first decision of the adventure: which exit to take. This had better not be one of those adventures where going the wrong way at the start guarantees failure.

Based on the fact that only one corridor is described as sloping downwards, I wouldn't be surprised to find that the other exit leads to a dead end, possibly containing an item that might be of use, and that after dealing with whatever is there, I'd be compelled to take the other exit. Either that or a 'You so dumb, you can't even figure out that you should be descending. Spikes! For you! In your Head!' Instant Death. Let's find out.

Neither, in fact. The passage slopes down, spirals, and narrows, forcing me to crouch down. Funny, that: having to crouch tends to be a consequence of a low ceiling, not a narrow passage - indeed, crouching means taking up more space in a horizontal dimension, which is pretty much the opposite of what's needed when things get narrow.

The passage forks, and now I get asked whether or not I have the Way of the Nomad. Checking out its description, the only thing I can see that would make it relevant is that I'd 'instinctively know which way is north'. So if (not having the Way of the Nomad) I've lost my bearings, I should be given a choice between subjective directions rather than the compass points given in the book. And if it's not that... well, it's probably something in which desert survival skills are just as appropriate as crouching down to better get along a narrow passageway.

A hole in the ground is the only way on from the turning I choose. I drop down through it, and ooh, clumsy transition - the next section has me walking into a chamber with a roof so high that the light from my torch doesn't reach it. A stone block falls behind me, blocking off the way I came in, the chamber becomes cold, and a voice addresses me by name and threatens me with death.

There are two usable exits. The one I pick soon rises, leading me to a balcony overlooking a torchlit chamber containing several caskets. A stone door blocks off, um, I think it's the way I just came in, but sloppy use of terminology makes that less clear than it should be. Then a poorly designed trap activates. I mean, why would you have the sequence of events go
  1. seal off one exit
  2. introduce threat
  3. start to slowly seal off other exit
unless you wanted the victim to have a chance of escaping? I mean, there's almost a good bit here: my initial reaction when the first weapon is aimed at me is unconcern, because after all these years it's going to have deteriorated to the point where it's ineffective, but then the shot almost hits and I realise that this is more dangerous than expected. That's quite neat. But pointing out how unrealistically effective the trap is doesn't fit with the 'dive under the gradually descending door (with optional last-minute hat retrieval)' escape option.

Further on, I encounter a combination lock, with a puzzle based on a numerical sequence. And it turns out that, despite what the description said about being able to understand ancient languages, the primary function of the Way of the Scholar is to enable the not-so-mathematically-adept readers to circumvent the puzzles. If I'd known that that was what it was for, I'd have picked something else, as I'm generally pretty good at puzzles. There's nothing wrong with catering for the people who do struggle with that aspect of gamebooks, but at least make it clear that that's what it's for, rather than implying that it will enable your character to make use of information you have no way of knowing yourself.

It looks as if I've reached a dead end, until I notice the hole in the floor with blue light emanating from it. I'm not going to go on about poor writing in this adventure any more, as it's becoming like carpet-bombing fish in a barrel. So I drop through the new hole, experience the same chill as before, and get taunted by a spectral Zakhan (effectively the local equivalent of a Caliph). There's a trapdoor set into the floor of this chamber as well as the usual two passages leading out. Hoping not to encounter a rehash of one of book 4's weaker failures, I look to see what's under it.

Another chamber, full of surprisingly realistic statues. One of them animates and attacks me, and a couple of lucky rolls enable me to shatter it without taking a scratch. In the rubble I find a key bearing a cat hieroglyph, and I am compelled to take the statue's sword. Moving on before any other statues get agitated, I descend further.

The spectral Zakhan appears again before the echoes of the falling slab have faded, warning me to turn back. Even the author recognises that that's not really an option owing to my inability to walk through solid stone. This way or that way? The one I pick leads to a passage that has tiles on the floor.

Oh no!

There are symbols on all the tiles: some are skulls, some are birds, and some are cats. Inspired by the key I found earlier (naturally my specialised knowledge of ancient cultures provides no insight into what the symbols could signify to the people who laid the tiles), I step on a cat tile.

Poison darts hit me. The damage is not lethal, but still significant. For my second attempt I shall try a skull tile, on the assumption that the most threatening-looking tiles are actually the safest. Yes, that works. Until I near the end of the corridor, but sand and dust cover the last of the tiles, and it doesn't occur to my character to crouch down and try blowing the tiles clean enough to make the symbols on them visible. Or just to crouch down anyway, the darts that hit me having been at upper arm height. No, a random number shall determine my fate. And it's more poison darts. Still not quite dead, but pretty close by now.

My torch starts to go out. Catching sight of a red glow up ahead, I hurry towards it, presumably having decided that the risk of plunging into a furnace is not so terrible as the possibility of not being able to see well. It turns out to be just a torchlit chamber. Another descending slab, and this time no obvious alternate exits. Behind a throne I find a sealed alcove, and a hand-shaped indentation carved into the wall. The indentation probably isn't going away, so I'll leave it alone while I check to see if there's anything more subtle that could activate a hidden door.

The spectre appears again. He congratulates me for getting this far, tells me that I'm close to my goal, and then says that I must die, and attacks. It turns out to be a good thing that the book forced me to pick up that sword, as it gives me a Combat Skill bonus that shifts my chances from 'almost certainly doomed' to 'in with a chance if you get lucky'.

I get lucky! The ghost is destroyed, while I sustain only a minor graze (which takes off a third of the Endurance I have left). A stone portal opens, allowing me into the treasure chamber. Which contains broken pottery and mouldering tomes. There's also a door, with two keyholes, one marked with a bird hieroglyph, the other with a cat. I use the one key that I have, and the door opens onto a long corridor. A stone in the wall moves, revealing an indentation the same shape as one of the items I didn't select during character creation. Bother.

Rocks fall. Randomness determines whether or not I evade them. I get a number which does not take me to the section in which I am fatally crushed. Regrettably, the section to which I am directed tells me that I have not correctly solved the chess-based puzzle, so a poison dart hits me. Googling 'Mongoose "Lone Wolf" errata' eventually leads me to find the correct section number, so I make it out of the tomb alive.

One last slab drops, preventing me from going back in. The sandstorm has cleared away all the sand that was hiding most of the pyramid (so, presumably, if not for the storm, I'd have made it to the end of the corridor, found the exit blocked by several tons of sand, and either been crushed or got trapped and starved). Reflecting that this whole expedition has turned out about as well as Mongoose Publishing's reissuing the Lone Wolf series, I resolve never to come back here, ever ever (guess where Lone Wolf meets Tipasa in the main adventure), and to find myself a wife (presumably because Lone Wolf meets her, too, and not indicating that Tipasa gets married between this fiasco and the main adventure might confuse the fans).

On the bright side, I won. So I shan't have to play The Tomb of the Majhan again.

1 comment:

  1. Have you played Stuart's Windhammer entry from last year, Call of Khalris? It received a lot of criticism, which I can only explain by assuming that the standards have gone up by leaps and bounds since the 80s. It's far and away the best egypt-esque desert horror adventure I've seen in a gamebook.

    This just reminded me of it. I would love to see you do a writeup of playing through Call of Khalris. You're asked to keep a journal, so it kind of lends itself to that. (Actually, for that matter, I'd be interested in seeing you do writeups of playing through a lot of the Windhammer gamebooks.)

    Anyway, here's the link: