Friday, 6 September 2013

Heavy as Hard Luck

Monster HORRORSHOW was a complete RPG system devised by J.H. Brennan. It includes the proud claim that, "There are fewer rules in the HORRORSHOW than any other major role play game system I know!", which makes me wonder if Mr. Brennan had come to regret giving Sagas of the Demonspawn such a horrendously convoluted ruleset.

I attempted to run the adventure contained within the rulebook for my school's RPG group, but didn't get very far. Maybe that's because I never actually made it through The Labyrinth of Squat. That was a short but tough solo adventure at the start of the book, and the book indicated that in order to become a Werewizard (Monster HORRORSHOW's term for the GM), one must first survive the solo adventure. Despite numerous attempts, I never got further than the climactic fight. And, it being over two decades since I last even tried, I don't know if I'll even make it that far this time. Still, I can remember a lot of what happens in it, so my near-inevitable failure might well be down to the dice rather than poor decision-making.

The Labyrinth of Squat has even fewer rules than Monster HORRORSHOW. The starting total of Life Points is fixed, and I start with no equipment beyond the clothes I'm wearing. I find myself in a damp and dimly-lit subterranean room, with doors to all four major points of the compass. In the centre of the room is a large and unpleasant granite statue of a giant humanoid toad killing a warrior. There are two plaques on the plinth, one naming the statue 'Squat Triumphant', the other being what the text suggests might be 'some tribute to the repulsive Squat in a foreign tongue', though any amateur cryptographer should have no difficulty translating it into a handy hint. I have the option of examining the statue more closely, but as I recall, doing so is unhelpful and harmful.

Of course, black granite is significantly heavier than polystyrene.

While the information provided by the encoded plaque is worth acting on, there's something else I should do first: what I did at the start of almost every attempt I've ever made at the adventure (the exception(s) coming before I found what I'm about to seek). So I open the south door, and... that's not the door I thought it was. The south door is locked, and the keyhole bears a message stating that it can only be unlocked with a brass key manufactured by the Acme Brass Key Manufacturing Company of Pittsburg, Illinois. Not yet having such a key on me, I shall have to return to this door later. But it's not the one I want.

Maybe what I'm looking for is to the west, then. No, that door opens onto a corridor containing a sinister robed figure. I'll have to go that way at (at least) one point, but not yet. How about east, then? Yes, that's more like it. A clockwork mechanism slightly impales me with a spear. Which is not a good thing to have happen, but that does show that I'm on the right track, and the book specifies that there's only the one spear, so if I should ever come this way again, I can ignore the trap. Which did negligible damage anyway.

Past the now empty spear-chucking device is a corridor leading to another door, on which is a sign reading, 'This door is also trapped'. Fearlessly I advance to the second door and fling it open. The spear-thrower behind it activates, but whoever put up that sign neglected to load the second device, so it just twangs ineffectually at me. Beyond that door is a large chamber containing a drinking fountain. I drink, finding the water to have an unusual taste and a potent effect, restoring my Life Points to maximum. It doesn't work if taken away from here, but the effect is repeatable, and now that the one functional trap on the way here has been sprung, there's nothing to hinder me from popping back to get healed any time I get injured.

Returning to the chamber where I started, I now try the north door, which leads to a corridor ending in another door. Behind that door is another corridor ending in a third door, but a large spider's web spans it at the half-way mark, and if I want to get to the end of this corridor, I'll have to fight the large spider. Which is not tarantula-style large, but the size of a German Shepherd. And by 'German Shepherd', Mr. Brennan means a man who looks after a flock of sheep somewhere like Baden-Wurttemberg, rather than the breed of dog. The fight does not go very well: though I win, I lose a lot of Life in the process, and this corridor is not like the booby-trapped door - if I go away and come back later, a second oversized arachnid will have spun a fresh web in the same place.

The fountain isn't the only way to get healed, but the alternative method is less reliable, and causes further loss of life when it fails to work. I'll give it a couple of tries (it'd take at least three failures to kill me), and if I'm not in better shape by then, I'll have to do things the hard way. No, healing leaves me worse off, so I trek back to the fountain, restore myself to full health, and then confront the replacement spider, which only inflicts a quarter of the damage that its predecessor did before I kill it.

The northernmost door leads to a portrait gallery, most of the pictures showing Squat indulging in sinister pursuits left undescribed to deter readers from copying them, though there is also a remarkably realistic illustration of a double-headed zombie reading a spell book. The paintings will merit closer examination later, but for now I'm more interested in following up on the clue from the statue, so I take the west exit.

This brings me to another chamber with four exits, and a heap of straw in one corner. Judging by the graphically-described stench of the straw, something sleeps in it. Each door has a sign on it. Starting with the one through which I entered, and going anticlockwise around the room, they say, 'Open this door and you're history', 'Keep out or be gutted', 'Positively No Admittance on Pain of Death and Nasty Stuff Like That' (with an accompanying illustration of a skull and crossbones, plus an axe embedded in the skull), and 'Welcome, Gentle Traveller'.

Searching stinking mounds is often a worthwhile pursuit in J.H. Brennan books, so I take a chance on it here. There are no items of value in the straw, but what an incredible smell I've discovered - so disgusting that whoever I next fight will spend every second round retching too hard to be able to hit me. I then open the west door ('Positively No Admittance etc.'), and the guard on the other side asks me, "Can't you read?" (possibly going on to observe that I smell like feet wrapped in leathery burnt bacon) before taking a swing at me with his sword. He hits me once, I retaliate with such force that, but for his armour, the fight would be over, and while he's gagging, I follow up with the coup de grace.

He was guarding an armoury, and I help myself to a breastplate and a sword that glows and makes a humming noise, but is only like a light sabre, because George Lucas' lawyers were probably already very active in 1987. There are no other exits, so I return to the room with the straw and, since the text doesn't forbid me from doing so, check the mound again. Still no loot, but I'm back to smelling worse than that guy you really wish wasn't in the same lift as you at the convention.

Behind the north door ('Keep out' and so on) I encounter what appears to be the end result of an alchemical experiment gone badly wrong (or it could be a punk rocker). Either way, I have another fight on my hands if I wish to investigate further, and between getting first strike and that nifty sword, I win too quickly for the smell to make any difference. The room being guarded by the green-clawed thing I just slew contains only a brass key, an engraved label proclaiming it the craftsmanship of the Acme Brass Key Manufacturing Company of Pittsburg, Arkansas. Despite the state-related inconsistency, this is the key that will unlock that door I found earlier. And the book gives every indication that Mr. Brennan had no idea either of the Pittsburgs named actually existed - but then, he didn't have access to Wikipedia in the 1980s.

Like the armoury, this room has only the one door. Nevertheless, a choice of options is provided. I can either go back south to the room with the straw, or stay here until I starve and rot. Call me predictable or unadventurous if you will, but I head south.

Now, do I return to the gallery or refresh my memory as to what horrors lie beyond the south door ('Welcome, Gentle Traveller')? I think it's got to be the untried door, just to see what the joke is. Unexpectedly, there is nothing nasty immediately beyond the door. Just another corridor, so I can head back north into the room with the straw, south in search of a deferred punchline, or east or west if I feel like walking into a wall.

South takes me to a room with additional exits to east and west. From the section number I deduce that going east will take me through the corridor that had the sinister robed figure in it (he's gone now) and back to the chamber with the statue. West is an unknown, so I check it out, entering a room that rotates just enough to block off the way I came in. In the centre of the room is a coffin-sized device with three numbered buttons set into it. An accompanying notice provides mathematical formulae for establishing which of the buttons will, if pressed, destroy the galaxy, which will send me on a mystery trip, and which will allow me to go back east or further west. Some mathematicians may disagree with Mr. Brennan's interpretation of the term 'whole number', but it's clear enough which button is which. Though curious about the mystery trip, I pick the one that will allow me to continue my comparatively methodical exploration of this not particularly labyrinthine labyrinth.

Pressing the button opens up the way back east and a flight of steps descending to the west. I head down them into a dark chamber where I am confronted by a stone figure with huge yellow eyes. Leaping to the attack, I find that I've just assaulted a statue of Beethoven that's wearing a pair of sunglasses that might once have belonged to Elton John (though if the book had been published a year or two later, I'd have had to reference Roddy Piper and possibly play out a combat that takes something like 10 minutes to resolve and makes no sense whatsoever). Helping myself to the sunglasses (which enable me to see in the dark), I return to the room, which rotates again, so I take a chance on the 'mystery trip' button.

It's a randomised teleporter, and my memory for section numbers tells me that it could send me to the gallery or the room with the mound of straw. Instead of which, it takes me back to the room with the statue, so I make a detour east, for a refreshing drink that makes good the damage I took from spider and guard.

I'm still missing two essential items, but I know where they are. Out of curiosity, I go west from the chamber with the statue, to see what the robed figure is actually like. And it's an Animated Skeleton with delusions of Grim Reaperhood, which attacks me with a pocket-sized scythe and does almost as much damage as that first spider before I deanimate it. Another quick drink, and I try the spider route to the gallery again: the spiders aren't as good fighters as the Skeletons (though they do have an 'inflict Instant Death on a double 6' ability that might yet give me cause to regret picking the theoretically safer fight).

I win but take a lot of damage, so I go back for another drink, then kill the next spider without getting hurt at all. Back at the gallery, I take a closer look at the painting of the zombie, and realise that this is actually an art installation: a portrait-sized hole in the wall leads to a room that contains a real undead two-headed zombie, lit in such a way as to appear indistinguishable from a painting except under close scrutiny. Scrutiny close enough that the zombie is able to reach out of the frame and yank the art critic into its little room. Say what you like about the Tate Modern, but at least the exhibits don't usually attack the punters.

The fight is over quickly, but not before the zombie infects me with its Putrid Touch, which will cause me to haemorrhage away 5 Life Points every time I turn to a new section until dead or cured. Nevertheless, I grab the spoils of battle before leaving the zombie's room: a hidden compartment contains a pouch of money that's of no use whatsoever within the adventure, and the book the zombie was reading contains a spell of protection from fireballs.

There are two routes from here to the healing fountain. One goes through fewer sections than the other, but will include another spider fight, and that could do more damage than the longer journey. I think I'm healthy enough to survive the slower-but-safer path, and put my theory to the test. And I'm right.

Now I have to go back to the gallery again. But if I'd tried getting the other thing I need from there after getting the zombie's book, I'd almost certainly have wound up rotting away before I got to the fountain. So, if all goes well, one more spider fight. Mind you, it'd also be just one more if all went incredibly badly. But the spider dies without injuring me at all, so I get back to the gallery again.

This time I concentrate on the portraits of Squat. A particularly nasty one shows him wearing a dragon-shaped amulet. A woefully inaccurate equation has been scrawled on the frame (it boils down to '252=156'). This is actually a puzzle (not even that tricky once you know what to do), but the book also gives the option of thinking about it, and doing so leads to the same section as actually solving the puzzle for real. Bizarrely, back when I first reached this part of the adventure, I missed the 'trick' of the puzzle and turned to the 'think about it' section. Though that section says nothing about how the puzzle is solved, the very act of turning to it somehow inspired me to realise what I'd been missing (and consequently to be able to solve the variant on that puzzle that had baffled me for years in the third of Mr. Brennan's Grail Quest books).

Making sense of the unbalanced equation enables me to realise that I can reach into the painting (and this one is a proper painting) and grab the amulet for myself. More problematically, the illustration of Squat comes out of the picture at the same time, and attacks me. It gets lousy rolls, though, and I deconstruct it quite thoroughly.

I head back to the chamber where this started, and unlock the south door. Heading down yet another corridor, I reach another room, which appears to have another exit set into the south wall. It's a bit hard to make out, though, what with that full-grown dragon blocking the view.

Hang on, a dragon? With how many Life Points? Good thing it lets past anybody wearing a dragon-shaped amulet. And, thanks to the sunglasses, when I step through that other door, I see that I've reached Squat's throne room. Aware that I've not been taken in by the illusion that would be getting me killed right now if I'd fallen for it, he lobs a fireball my way. Good thing I've got something to keep me unsinged.

Magic having failed Squat twice, he resorts to brute force instead, and the toughest fight in the adventure ensues. For the first time ever, I don't lose it. Hey, Ed, Nick, Tim and Nick, we can get back to the HORRORSHOW campaign now. (Yes, two of the players back at school did have the same first name. And another had the same first name as I. Reality must have rolled at least 30 when using the Absolutely Anything Table to generate the group.)


  1. Congrats! Happy to see there is a Brennan adventure out there that's doable!

    1. The early Grail Quest books are also beatable, as I hope to demonstrate here in time to come.

  2. Will be looking forward to that. I've got the first 4, so of course I'm curious. Will be playing them once I'm done with a few proper books, some gamebooks like Cretan Chronicles and Golden Dragon, and er, well, hopefully sometimes before we're all eaten by zombies.