Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Sleep Is For Tortoises

I have previously mentioned the Fighting Fantasy promotion in late 1986 which saw free bookmarks inserted into several titles, but I haven't yet said anything about the book that contained bookmark 3. This was The Riddling Reaver, a rather epic campaign for the FF RPG. Some members of my school's RPG group had a go at it, with me acting as GM, and while some of the players made inadvisable decisions that wound up making the adventure rather more farcical than it was supposed to be, it was a lot of fun.

1988 saw the publication of Reaver authors Paul Mason and Steve Williams' first FF gamebook, Slaves of the Abyss, and I made up my mind to buy it as soon as I read the names of a setting and a character from TRR on the back cover. My first attempt at it ended quickly and disconcertingly, with a tableau showing a market trader being asked the price of my sword, which he'd salvaged from the ruins of the city I'd resolved to help defend back in the previous section. Subsequent tries lasted longer, but success continued to elude me for a long while. Still, this was the first FF book in a while to sufficiently engage me that I kept on attempting it, and even after beating it without dice, I still wanted to win it properly.

Around a year later, while playtesting a mini-adventure I was writing (long since destroyed for being dreadful), I rolled up a character with the maximum possible score in every attribute. Someone who had the potential to be a truly epic hero. So rather than 'waste' him on my own work, I got Slaves out, and sent my maxed-out superadventurer on a quest I considered worthy of him. He died.

When I got back into collecting FF books in 2001, I divided the list of titles I didn't yet have into categories based on how much I wanted them (and thus how much I was willing to pay for them). Only two books made it into the 'willing to pay silly amounts' bracket, and Slaves was one of them. Even so, it proved elusive, and my FF gamebook collection was almost complete by the time I finally tracked down a copy on eBay. It turned out to be missing a page, but I was able to get a scan of that one from another gamebook collector, and at last I could play the book again. Being older, and having developed my critical faculties during the intervening years, I saw things rather differently to how I had done back when I first read SotA. But it didn't go down in my estimation - I just appreciated it for new reasons.

I still haven't won it by the rules, though. Maybe today?
Skill 9
Stamina 15
Luck 8
And then again, maybe not.

I'm in the city of Kallamehr, which hasn't been doing so well since its previous ruler was thrown from the top of a tower by some wise-cracking prankster. The army is in the north, defending against a threatened invasion, local hero Ramedes the Invincible is away on a quest, and a messenger has just turned up, babbling warnings about an army approaching from the east. Lady Carolina, widow of the late Baron, summons the best adventurers in the city to help deal with this new threat. And I guess a careless scribe produced one invitation too many, as I also get called in.

We all agree to help, and set about making plans. One of us must ride north and summon the army. Another should go east to scout out the enemy. And the other nine will stay behind to get slaughtered in a variety of bizarre ways plan Kallamehr's defences. I choose the scouting mission, as that's the only one that won't ultimately doom me. This book does have a pretty narrow 'true path' (though, as with Creature of Havoc, the false trails are at least interesting).

I have a pre-quest meal with the city nobles, during which the obese Madhaerios advises me not to try anything that would get me killed before I can report back, the wealthy Dunyazad recommends resting at the Temple of Fourga, and a page drops a note into my lap. I don't look at it straight away, as that would attract attention and lead to the page's death, but after the meal I read it, learning that I am being watched 'by a thousand eyes'.

One of the things I love about this book is actually one of the reasons for its unpopularity with some FF fans. While events happen for a reason, the authors generally trust the reader to be intelligent enough to put together the clues provided in the text, rather than spelling things out. I don't mean to suggest that anyone who misses these things is stupid, but it does mean that unless the reader pays attention, some incidents can seem random and inexplicable. I mention this here because the business with the page illustrates this problem in Marsten's playthrough of Slaves. On the attempt in which I looked at the note straight off, when the page died a section or two later, I deduced that it must be a punishment for the warning. Marsten took the same course of action but didn't make that connection, so the death just confused him.

As I'm about to set off, the tall noble Sige approaches me with a magical item that may help me in my mission: a pomander that will eliminate the need for sleep. I take it and ride away from the palace. As night falls, I become aware of a problem with Sige's gift: it doesn't work on my horse, so I still have to stop for a rest. Nevertheless, the pomander does come in handy, as it keeps me awake and alert, so I notice when a trio of Black Elves comes sneaking up on me. The cowards run off when I jump up and kick the embers of my fire at them.

The next day I travel onwards, passing through a number of villages in which I am made to feel unwelcome. By the end of the day I've made it to the town containing the Temple mentioned by Dunyazad, so I call in there. The reception I get is a lot less warm than was implied, and the High Priest makes out that I've been there before, and demands to see the contents of my pack. I show him what I have, reflecting that even for a Priest of the god of pride, he's being uncharacteristically arrogant. Not finding what he expects to find (which would be in my possession if I'd killed those Elves), he demands to know what I've done with it and, when I protest my innocence and mention having been directed here by Dunyazad, he has me imprisoned while he checks out my story. An hour later the High Priest reluctantly has me released, and I set off again.

A charging ox runs past and, a little further on, I see a cart at the side of the road, the second of the oxen that were drawing it lying dead close by. A hooded figure appears to be feeding on the corpse, and flees with a shriek as I approach. Taking a closer look at the dead ox, I notice something pink in the grass close by - a wax mask in the shape of my face. The hostile reactions of the people around here make a lot more sense in the light of this discovery.

Continuing on my way, I reach a stockade, and meet with a much friendlier welcome. While I'm enjoying the villagers' hospitality, there's a bit of a commotion outside the hut. The local witch or wise woman identifies me as the Protector prophesied by a 'winged messenger', and requests confirmation that I will stay here to keep them safe. I humour her, but as she rambles on about the coming test, I start to wonder if she's actually sane.

Later that night a buzzing sound approaches, the villagers start to scream in terror, and something hovers above the hut in which I'm staying, blotting out the view of the night sky through the hole that serves as a crude chimney. The door will not open, and something drops down through the smoke-hole. This sequence, incidentally, shows how breaking a passage up into multiple sections can be done well, each paragraph ending on an ominous note, with the time taken to turn the pages allowing for a little apprehension to build.

So I'm trapped, the locals are panicking outside, the thing that's scared them is hanging right overhead, and into the hut comes... a rope. Down which slides a trickster in brightly-coloured clothes. He introduces himself as the Riddling Reaver, tells me I'm making a complete hash of my mission, and offers to extract me from this situation while there's still a chance of saving Kallamehr. While anyone familiar with The Riddling Reaver might be suspicious, this is a genuine (and vital) offer of help. The Reaver serves neither Good nor Evil, and while it did suit his interests to bump off Lady Carolina's husband a while back, by now Evil has rather too much of an upper hand, and in the interests of restoring the balance, he's willing to help avert the defeat of the same city in whose misfortunes he had a hand.

The Reaver goes back up the rope. I grab onto it, and am yanked up and out of the hut, then towed away by the Reaver's airship and returned to the ground some way away. The Reaver then presents me with a fish-shaped bottle containing a sense of humour that he stole some years back, explaining that I'm likely to encounter its owner before long, and giving it back to him should make things easier for me. He then returns to his ship again and speeds off, leaving me in the middle of nowhere with no horse. Or so it seems, but when the sun comes up I discover that the road is close by, and my horse is grazing at the side. Attached to the saddle is the Reaver's calling card: a scroll bearing a riddle, the solution to which is 'a riddle'.

Resuming my travels, I reach another village, this one strangely deserted, and showing signs of having been abandoned in a hurry. Picking a house at random, I find that I've entered the home of a wizard or herbalist. On the desk is a parchment, rendered partially illegible by the contents of a leaking bottle. What I can make out appears to be a warning, and contains a clue that will help me navigate through the shifting forest if I get that far through the adventure. There are also some vials of liquid on the desk, bearing uninformative labels. I know from past attempts that one of them contains something useful, another is unhelpful (to say the least) and drinking the third will guarantee a nasty death in the long run, but I don't recall which is which, so I'd be better off leaving them all alone.

Also in the house are some puppets. Not suffering from pupaphobia, I take a closer look, but am distracted when I tread on something slippery - one of a line of slimy green footprints leading from a cupboard to the table and back again. Cautiously opening the cupboard door, I behold a creature which, upon closer examination, turns out to be a little girl, covered in green gunk and armed with a blowpipe. I take away the weapon and question the girl. She's Mema, apprentice to the sorcerer Enthymesis. Recently he made a divination that alarmed him, and decided to seek guidance from a Sage who lives in a forest to the north. Before leaving, he doused Mema in the green stuff for protection, and stuck her in the cupboard. A while after that, there was a lot of noise and screaming from outside, and then nothing until I turned up.

Mema's parents live in another village, so I have no real choice but to take her to them. Given that the slime might be the reason why she didn't suffer the same fate as everyone else in the village, I don't wash it off her. As we draw near to her parents' village, I catch sight of what looks like a wave of black lava flooding into the valley. Then I realise that the approaching tide is actually made up of vast numbers of people: this is the army I seek. I ride closer to get a better look at them, and Mema draws my attention to a black cloud hovering above the advancing mob. The cloud outpaces them, heading for us, and turns out to be a swarm of locust-sized hornets. They swoop down at us and... nothing happens, thanks to the slime. Galloping to the village, I warn the inhabitants of what's coming, return Mema to her parents, and oversee a hurried evacuation.

Time to return to Kallamehr and report my findings. I ride until my horse can go no further, then stop for the night in the market-town of Kamadan. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the pomander is less useful than Sige suggested: I still experience fatigue and weariness, and the pomander-induced sleeplessness prevents me from becoming properly rested. Nevertheless, I retain the thing, as I will need it later on.

In fact, I sort of need it right now, because during the night someone or something sets light to the inn where I'm staying. Something buzzes outside the window, and I see a black-cloaked figure hovering there. By the time I've fetched my sword, the figure has gone, so I climb out of the window, and sense something above me. Promptly jumping to the ground below, I miss the worst of the attack, but my jerkin does get spattered with an acidic liquid. I pull it off and throw it into a nearby water trough, and the reaction that occurs is impressive enough to make me very glad that I wasn't still wearing the thing. Thwarted for now, my assailant flies off.

As I watch the flaming inn collapse, cold metal touches my neck and I'm warned not to make a move. I disarm and floor the man behind me, who turns out to be Barolo, the man who taught me to fight, presumably checking to see that I wasn't out of practice. He invites me back to his home, and I accept, since the inn isn't exactly suitable accommodation any more. We chat for a while back at his place, and when a rat disturbs us, Barolo kills it with a demonstration of the one fighting technique he never taught me: sword-throwing. Now he knows he can trust me, he offers one final lesson, and as I'm not going to be getting any sleep tonight anyway, I accept. This trick, known as the Spitting Fly, has its limitations: if the thrown sword doesn't kill the target, I'm in trouble, as I no longer have a weapon to hand. Also, it can't be used in the heat of battle, as the degree of relaxation required to make the trick work isn't attainable under such circumstances. From personal experience, I can also add that LARPers don't approve of it.

In the morning I collect my horse (at least one of us is rested now) and pay for its stabling. Barolo gives me a shield to go with my sword, and a quick double-check of the rules reveals that this is another book that dispenses with the standard restriction on exceeding Initial Skill, so I can use the bonus from the shield. I have the option of giving him a gift in return, but every item I own is something I'm likely to need later, so I just wish him well and ride back to Kallamehr.

When I present myself at the palace, the guards are rude to me. I tell them of my mission, and one disappears inside, returning a little later to say that everyone's too busy with preparations for Lady Carolina's funeral to see me. He tells me to come back tomorrow, and to have a bath first. I draw my sword, and the guards attack. Fatigue gives me a Skill penalty only partially compensated for by the new shield, but there's one detail from the rules I haven't needed to mention up until now: such is the quality of my sword that I automatically kill my opponent if I ever roll a double 6 for my Attack Strength. As if to make up for my sub-par stat rolls, I do get double 6 in the very first round of the fight, gutting the first (and tougher) of the guards. The second guard takes longer to defeat, but doesn't get in a single blow against me.

After hiding the bodies, I enter the palace courtyard, where I see a footman and tell him I have an urgent message for Dunyazad. He directs me to an antechamber and goes off to fetch her. She arrives accompanied by a bodyguard and one of the other adventurers who were gathered here at the start of the adventure. I tell her of my experiences, much to the amusement of Luthaur, the other adventurer. He claims to have been scouting to the east himself, and contradicts my account, insisting that there are no invaders, the inhabitants of the deserted villages were just hiding, and I'm just making things up to try and impress Dunyazad. Not knowing which of us to believe, she returns to the funeral preparations, telling me to stay here for the night.

While lying awake, I hear the buzzing of the creature that burned down the inn, and emerge from my quarters in time to see it flying away from the keep, where the nobles are housed. This obviously merits further investigation, so I 'borrow' a coil of rope and take the stairs to the top of the palace walls, which should give me access to the roof of the keep and enable me to bypass the guards on the main door. I'm spotted by the guard who brought my previous online attempt at this book to an end, but today I am able to introduce him to the Spitting Fly, and help myself to the crossbow with which he killed the other version of me.

Continuing to the keep roof, I make secure the rope and abseil down one of the walls to look in through a window. Not having seen which one the winged creature came out of, I shall have to check a few of them. The rightmost one leads to Sige's room. She is in a meditative state, moving counters around a board which has a map of Kallamehr on it. Through the next window I see Dunyazad packing in preparation for departure. The one after that leads to the chamber where Asiah Albudur, the only noble not to have done anything worthy of mention in the blog before now, sits talking to an empty chair as if Lady Carolina were on it. Before I can check the last window, I spot a guard approaching and, not wanting to end up like my ill-fated max-statted character, descend to the courtyard.

Hearing a key turning in the lock of a nearby door, I hide. One of the men who emerge is Luthaur, and from the conversation I learn that they've drugged and captured Ramedes, who's not quite as invincible as his title made out. Luthaur reassures his companions that 'the other one' won't be so much trouble, and I resolve to make sure that that assertion proves as inaccurate as what he told Dunyazad earlier.

Investigating the place from which Luthaur and his cronies just came, I descend steps to the dungeons, and reach a cavern with a metal grille set into the floor. A man is hanging from the grille by his hands, and below him something nasty is gurgling and squelching. I fire a crossbow bolt at the creature, wounding it, and the man moans, as he is starting to lose his grip. I hurriedly open the trapdoor set into the middle of the grille, and the man starts to clamber towards it. Then someone pushes me through.

I land close to the creature, now recognising it as a Quagrant, a one-eyed monstrosity with a mouth so big it has to be referred to as a maw. As the thing moves towards me, I pull out the blowpipe and expel its contents into the Quagrant's gaping throat, causing it to start choking. While it is thus distracted, I attack, noting with irritation the lack of instructions to reduce the beast's Stamina if it's already been shot (the fact that this is one of my favourite gamebooks doesn't blind me to its occasional flaws). The thing's almost dead before it wins an Attack Round, sucking me into its mouth and automatically wounding me every round from then on. Luckily for me, that is only one more round, but if the crossbow bolt had been taken into account, I wouldn't have taken any damage.

The jailer is standing on the grille, laughing and dangling his keys in a taunting manner. One Spitting Fly later, he's not so amused. Ramedes, the other man in here, manages to get to the body and retrieve the keys, and we're soon both out of this unpleasant pit. He's not happy about having been betrayed, and becomes even less so when he learns of Lady Carolina's death. Removing a pouch from the water-trough in which he'd hidden it, he hands me the object of his quest and sets off in search of Carolina's killer, instructing me to give the pouch to the new ruler if he dies.

Hiding in the stable, I see the keep guards converge on him, and he parts with the title 'the Invincible' for good. Against that many, he'd have been just as dead even if I'd fought alongside him, and so would I. I spend the rest of the night in the stable, sneaking a look inside the pouch, which contains a valuable locket, magically sealed.

In the morning, servants construct a stage in the courtyard and put Carolina's coffin onto it, so her subjects can pay their last respects. All four nobles come out to watch the ceremony, and once a large enough crowd has gathered, I mingle with the commoners. I overhear a whispered argument between the two ahead of me in the queue, and am reminded of the old wives' tale that if a murderer kisses their victim, the corpse's lips will turn black.

Luthaur is loitering near the nobles, and appears nervous. As I'm beside the coffin, and could easily become the centre of attention, I show off the locket. Sige calls me a sacrilegious thief, Dunyazad identifies the locket as the relic that Carolina mentioned as she lay dying, and Sige orders Luthaur and the guards to kill me. Figuring that the locket has been waiting for a suitably dramatic moment, I try to open it, and succeed. Inside is a centuries-old painting that depicts Ramedes. Asaiah announces that the locket shows Ramedes to be the new Baron, and I apologetically point out that Ramedes is already dead, and Luthaur is to blame. Caught up in the moment, the guards turn on him and drag him away.

Now that all eyes are upon me, I address the nobles, exploiting that bit of folklore I heard mentioned earlier, and asking the one I believe to be in league with Luthaur (all right, know from previous attempts, though there are clues to the traitor's guilt) to honour the deceased with a kiss. The noble in question protests, but the crowd back me up. Begrudgingly, the traitor stoops to give the potentially incriminating kiss, then seizes the ceremonial sword from the body's right hand and attacks me, wounding my shoulder. I retaliate, and win the resultant fight, but the dead villain's spirit (or something like that) emerges from the body and lunges at me. I try to shield myself with my arms, and wind up with my left hand wreathed in a colour-changing haze that does no damage, but does provide the book with a rather bizarre way of checking that I've killed that villain without naming names and giving their identity away to anyone who makes it to the end without fulfilling this vital tangent.

None of the other adventurers are still alive, so I put the loyal guards in charge of the city's defences and depart again. The enemy within may have been thwarted, but there's still that army to deal with. And as I haven't the faintest idea how to go about that task yet, I decide to go in search of Enthymesis, the sorcerer who provided Mema with that protective goo.

Heading in the direction I was told he'd gone, I see a vast and barren plain ahead of me. A sudden sandstorm startles my horse, but I calm her. When the dust subsides, there's suddenly a forest in front of me. Probably not Birnam Wood, but I'd say that the most Macbethish character in this book has already been defeated, so it doesn't really matter. The vegetation is too thick for me to ride into the forest, so I tether my horse and enter on foot. Before long the path forks, and I take a careful look at my surroundings, as this is where the hint from that parchment comes into play, and a wrong turning will doom me.

The path I take leads to a glade containing a mound of earth with a big hole in it. From that hole protrudes a hand, coated in ants. Past experience has taught me not to get involved here, so I just watch as the hand grabs a stick and vanishes back into the hole. An anteater enters the clearing and, with a muttered, "Bon appétit!" I move on.

As I head down the next path I pick, I hear the world's worst ambushers preparing to attack me. One of them fires a bow at me - by which I don't mean that he fires a projectile at me from a bow, but butterfingeredly causes the bow itself to come twanging harmlessly in my direction. One of his companions leaps out onto the path in front of me, holding a crossbow, and shoots a bolt from it. His aim's a little low, and the bolt passes between my legs, hitting the Goblin I hadn't noticed creeping up from behind to backstab me. The Goblin with the crossbow drops it, pulls out a knife, charges at me, and gets caught in a snare set by a third Goblin who, upon seeing that things really aren't going according to plan, runs away. Chuckling at their ineptitude, I continue on my way, and my grin grows wider as I hear a squeaky voice reassuring the fleeing Goblin that, "I'll pulp 'im." It fades somewhat when I round the bend in the path and find the owner of that voice to be the biggest Ogre I've ever seen. Now that's a punchline.

You know, the book never made it clear whether that fatigue-based Skill penalty could be removed. It didn't make any significant difference to the outcome of the fights in Kallamehr, but if I'm still subject to it now, the Ogre does pulp me. Paul Mason being one of the FF authors who has some interaction with fandom, I could potentially check with him, so I'm going to end this entry here. If he's able to clear this uncertainty up, and I haven't just died, I'll resume playing Slaves later on. Otherwise, well, it's game over, isn't it?

1 comment:

  1. "This book does have a pretty narrow 'true path' (though, as with Creature of Havoc, the false trails are at least interesting)."
    There aren't really any false trails as such in Slaves bar the encounter with the compulsive liar and fetching the army from the north. All the other wrong decisions simply hurry you further along the quest thereby missing something vital. In a way, it's kinda like multiple versions of the door in Trial of Champions that teleports you further into the dungeon.

    This aspect of its design bugs me to be honest - there's at least decision where you need to behave counter-intuitively in order to win through (that is, it seems after rescuing Mema that you should seek out the sage rather than return to Kallamehr just yet - but do that and you fail).
    I also don't like the way you can't stay to defend the city because a Magnificent Seven style gamebook where you work with other heroes to save a city sounds great. Going north to bring the army back is problematic too as although you can get back on track after doing so, you'll have missed an essential item if you do so. You're unlikely to get far enough for that to be a problem though and in later attempts you'll probably just not go north ever again so really the northward detour is just redundant.
    These problems, coupled with the poorly designed time-track, let the book down for me. Despite the fact it's one of the best-written and imaginative FF books and it doesn't require particularly high stats for a win, I'm just not as fond of it as many FF fans are. I think Paul Mason's later books, while more unfair, were better overall.