Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Kids! Say No to Drugs!

I'm back in SF territory today, as Andrew Chapman's second Fighting Fantasy book, The Rings of Kether, concerns the adventures of an Investigator from Federal Central (Vice) as he (this is one of the few FF gamebooks in which the viewpoint character is explicitly identified as being male) takes on the drug traffickers operating in the Aleph Cygni system.

It was not long before a family holiday when I originally acquired Rings. I vaguely recall being in my room at home while trying to make sense of the description of a hotel as 'a dive' (having only encountered the 'jump head-first into water' version of the word until then), but by the climax of my first attempt, in which I found out how ludicrously easy it is to remove the shielding on the reactor in the drug dealers' base and cause the whole place to explode, I was in our chalet at whichever Pontins camp we were visiting that year.

My current copy of the book is in good condition for ex-library stock, but a previous user has underlined the section number for what they considered the optimal choice at every point along their preferred route through the book. Even when there's no actual choice: sections ending in a straightforward 'turn to [number]' still have that number underlined. In the unlikely even that the guilty party is reading this, they may have a glower and a disapproving tut.

I contemplated fudging character creation again for this adventure, though it's not my character but my spacecraft that I'd be optimising, a low score in Shields almost invariably leading to a failure such as I experienced on my previous playthrough. In the end I opted to take the dice as they fell, winding up with:
Skill 8
Stamina 18
Luck 11
Weapons Strength 11
Shields 4
So I wound up with reasonable Shields, but a sub-par Skill. Probably not as harmful as the other way round.

The quantity of the illegal drug Satophil-d coming out of Aleph Cygni suggests that local law enforcement is corrupt, so I'm working undercover, pretending to be an ordinary trader. I arrive in the system and head for its one planet, Kether (the eponymous rings, in case anyone was wondering, are in the sense of drug rings rather than Saturn-esque). The customs officials at the starport are not interested in my cargo, but they do confiscate my spy ray, whatever that is. Seriously, it wasn't mentioned before now, this section provides no explanation of what it does or why I have it, and the fact that it doesn't cause the customs men to assume that I'm an undercover Investigator suggests that whatever law enforcement-related applications it may have are not immediately obvious.

I decide to have a look at the state of the local police, who are known as proctors. There's a nice touch in the writing here, travel by flying car being such an ordinary aspect of everyday life in this universe that my arriving on the roof is taken for granted, and it only becomes apparent owing to the mention that I have to descend to the 49th floor to get to the Vice department. The overweight man I meet there confidently informs me that there are no local drug rings - at most, a small-scale operation running on the moon.

Unconvinced, and pretty sure from past attempts that there's nothing worthwhile to be gained from visiting the moon, I have little choice but to check out some local bars in the hope of finding a lead. I make my way to a tacky, flashy, noisy, humans-only establishment that sounds like a horrendous place for a night out but is, for the purposes of my investigation, 'very promising'.

Mingling with the crowd, I encounter a navigator who grabs my neck and mutters, 'Beware.' Could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. He mumbles a barely coherent monologue about the 'Tau Cygni threat', from which I can only make out that he thinks there's something afoot on the moon, and the obese woman playing cards nearby is involved. Still don't want to go to the moon, so I check out the card players. The woman in question has all the wit and charm of your stereotypical ladette, but clearly has considerable authority over the men with her. Attempting to join the game will demonstrate that I possess all the diplomatic skills of a dazed mollusc, so I discreetly shadow her afterwards, thereby discovering that she's in the interplanetary import/export trade, and has the charming name of Zera Gross.

Spying on her apartment is liable to lead to a variety of interesting internal injuries, so I decide to look Ms. Gross up in the local library, as Kether doesn't have any kind of fanciful global computer network that would make it possible to look up almost anything within seconds. Or maybe the spy ray was actually a dongle, and its confiscation leaves me bereft of web access. At least the bulk of the media at the library are electronic. News files on organised crime may well have been doctored, so I try looking for statistics too dull to be considered worth suppressing. As it turns out, it's what has been suppressed that catches my attention: there seem to be some significant omissions in air freight records.

Proceeding to the State Computer File Centre, I find that the data I want to follow up is restricted under the hundred-year rule. Oh, well - sometimes you have to break the law in order to enforce the law. Returning after closing time, I pull a Mission: Impossible routine to get inside, and find lots of gaps in the records. There's no convenient 'undelete' function, so if I'm to find out more, I need somebody to lean on.

I pay a house-call on one of the Air-traffic chiefs. As there are two, it's possible that one of them might be innocent, and if that is the case, I have fifty-fifty odds of having picked that one. Consequently, I start with a friendly approach. The moment I let him know what I am, he panics and babbles a confession of having covered up flights from the islands to the asteroids. He claims not to have a clue who was paying him to do this, so I decide to see if the Gene Hunt approach will jog his memory at all.

Bad idea. He points me towards asteroid C230, which I know from previous attempts to be unrelated to the drug smuggling. Fun though it could be to drop in on the alien mind parasite-worshipping cult that lives there, I think I'll stick to the main plot, and pursue further enquiries regarding those flights. Returning to the starport,  I bribe a pilot, who also tells me to check out C230. Looks like I'm going to have to chase that wild goose in order to get back on track.

Discreetly landing somewhere out of sight of the dock, I don a pressure suit and enter the asteroid via a vent. Marvellous! I'm a cliché! Drifting through ventilation shafts (cheapskate cultists have no artificial gravity), I find a room containing a flaming pedestal. Closer investigation causes a scaly-legged serpentine figure (wouldn't the legs make it more like a centipede than a serpent?) with a woman's face, steel fangs and leather wings to appear and seize me. So I interrogate it. In Yoda-esque language it tells me to look into the Customs officials. It does reflect rather poorly on my investigative skills that I wasn't able to think of that myself.

I've been a bit blasé about the one in the book, but strange creatures with women's faces can be quite horrific.

Returning to Kether to follow this latest lead, I decide that as intimidation and bribery both led me on a false trail, I should try spying on the Customs officials. Concealing myself in a locker, I am displeased to observe an armed security officer carrying out a locker inspection. Not a particularly thorough one, so I might get away with hiding behind a greatcoat (the odds of the pin-up in the locker concealing an escape tunnel are pretty low). The officer gets to the locker in which I'm hiding... and a friend of his points out that it's beer-o'clock. Phew!

Time passes. A pilot arrives with a tonne of boxes. A Customs man eagerly tells his colleagues that the Satophil-d has arrived. His subsequent dialogue with the pilot is delightful.
C: Anything to declare?
P: No. Of course not.
C: Very good. Passed inspection.
I burst out of the locker, blaster pointed at the pilot's head, and suggest that they might like to consider rewording that little exchange. The Customs officials direct me to the top floor of the Isosceles Tower, and the pilot mentions a communications satellite. From playing the book before, I know that going to the satellite will involve some Skill rolls, failing them could lead to my winding up drifting in space, and the optimal outcome of the visit would be learning that it's transmitting to the Isosceles Tower. So I think I'll cut out the middlesatellite, and head straight over to the Tower to see what their angle is.

The top floor turns out to be the office of Zera Gross' import/export company. Considering that I've known about them since day one, the fact that it's taken all this effort just for me to find their office suggests gross incompetence on my part. Especially as the office has been abandoned in a hurry, with document files and magnetic tape strewn all over the place (how retro). In fact, there are still two thugs shredding and incinerating in one of the rooms. A firefight ensues, in the course of which I deal substantially more damage than I take.

Helping myself to the automatic blaster wielded by the man who hit me, I discover that it does more damage than a normal blaster. Should that not have been mentioned back when I was being shot with it? Or did the thug somehow manage to convert the extra damage into a Skill bonus (his Skill was significantly higher than his buddy's). Musing on the oddities of Mr. Chapman's approach to weapon characteristics, I open another door, and a bureaucrat swings a paperweight at my head. I dodge it and apply a little excessive force, and he shows me the 'destroy this message' message giving the coordinates of the island to which the company is relocating.

I head out there and find two conventional entrances, one freight door, and an antigrav dray. And the underliner who had this book before me apparently never realised what fun could be had by driving the dray through the freight doors. The guards on the other side of the doors are prepared for uninvited guests, but not for an HGV in the sternum. The room with the squashed guards in also contains the body of a man who's been savaged by a savage beast or Kether's equivalent of Jack Bauer. He has some of the pills that serve as Provision-substitutes in this adventure (rather inappropriately named Pep Pills), so I take them from him and heal the damage I took back at the office.

Moving on, I encounter a robot that asks me a bizarre riddle. By now I know the answer, but I have not the faintest idea why it's correct. Still, there's another situation in the book where the text explicitly states that I make a completely random guess that just happens to be the correct password, so I don't think exploiting metaknowledge to arbitrarily come up with the appropriate response necessarily constitutes cheating here.

Beyond the robot I reach a junction that (as far as I can tell) serves only to help pad out the adventure to 400 sections. I soon reach a room that contains Zera Gross, a robot secretary, and no antlers to help distinguish when she's not dictating. Still, she manages to clarify the issue in time that the robot doesn't end up transcribing the subsequent exchange, which is something along the lines of, 'Zap! Missed, stupid narc! Pow! Aargh!' and more in that vein, eventually followed by the heavy breathing of a badly wounded Investigator, the death rattle of an extremely fat criminal, and the crackle of a blazing office.

Restoring myself to full health with a couple more pills, I make my way to the command room and manage to find out the location of the asteroid where they make the drugs. I return to my ship and fly up there, finding it protected by a minefield. Blowing it up will damage my shields, but a bad roll while trying to manoeuvre through it would harm me more, if I remember rightly. Nevertheless, I trust to the dice.

The asteroid also has phaser batteries, and while my ship's Smart Missiles can take out some of them, I still have to do a little fighting. This is where that Shields score makes all the difference, and the one I rolled today is high enough to get me past the asteroid's defences intact. Entering via an emergency airlock, I encounter a hostile arrangement of cubes, which is only slightly more of a threat than the Borg were by the end of Voyager's run.

Further on, I reach a cavern containing metallic spheres with handles and bulbous creatures with tentacles. My sub-par Skill causes me to blunder into a couple of the creatures, which have fang-filled maws with which they snap at anything that troubles them. The damage is easily healed, though.

Beyond the cavern is a laboratory suitable for manufacturing Satophil-d. I wreck equipment for a while, then spot two exits, and go through one of them. It leads to a room with gravity, where a narrow bridge spans a deep pit. The bridge is guarded by a trinocular triped with three arms and three weapons, which I discover to be an Arcturian Vanque when I start shooting at it. We both have pretty lousy aim, but I manage to hit the Vanque more often than it does me.

A junction leads me to a peculiar cubic room with red doors in all the walls and black buttons on the doors. If I'd taken Zera on with the noble art of fisticuffs and survived, I'd have learned the right thing to do here. Provided I recognised that there was a little concussion-induced unnecessary repetition in there. Of course, I went for the firefight instead, so avoiding all the traps between here and the climactic confrontation would require me to invoke metaknowledge.

Avoiding all the traps, I make it to the sumptuous living quarters of Ms. Gross' associate, 'Blaster' Babbet. Two of him greet me, and they misuse a line from Blade Runner as a threat. Refusing to be taken in by the trick, I attack the real Babbet, and am displeased to discover that the final fight is a punch-up, in which Babbet has the edge. If the book had the standard rules for using Luck in battle, I might have just managed to win, but it doesn't, so I wind up beaten to a pulp.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Winter Is Coming

For some reason I delayed getting any more Lone Wolf books after the first two - perhaps I was hoping to get them second-hand as well. Eventually I did get them brand new, but by then the series had already undergone its first redesign, so my copy of book 3, The Caverns of Kalte, has a salmon-coloured spine, and the cover depicts a tentacled monstrosity rather than a skiing Ice Barbarian. I initially went looking for it in a shop in Southborough, close to the school's playing fields (it was on a Thurssday, the day we had games that academic year), but the shop had stopped selling books by then. Or maybe it never did, and I was confused. Regardless, the fruitless detour delayed me, and actually getting the book in another shop added to my lateness. But that wasn't the only gamebook I bought at that time, so I'll save the rest of this story for when I get around to blogging about the other one.

This is going to be a new experience for me, as I've always previously played Kalte with a character carried over from the previous book in the series. As my playthrough of book 2 ended with my character getting fatally clonked on the head with a bit of wood, I need to create a fresh Lone Wolf here, which means no bonus Kai disciplines, and no equipment from other books. Given that the whole point of the preceding book was to acquire and use a +8 sword of Darklord-incinerating, which would remain in my inventory for the rest of the series, I anticipate finding this book a lot tougher than usual. Not that it's always been a walkover before now: as I recall, my first attempt ended during a fight against a brute that would fatally sting me if it inflicted any damage at all. Guess what: it inflicted damage.

This book is set around a year after the last one. The history leading up to it is largely the same, except that, presumably, Lone Wolf remained unconscious for much longer, and the Darklords' invasion was thwarted after their commander accidentally brutally cut his head off while combing his hair. Whatever my character did to earn the favour of the King in the aftermath of this mayhem involved a run-in with renegade magician Vonotar the Traitor, who was last seen (on this blog, at least) kidnapping another wizard and getting decked for his troubles. Loi-Kymar's belief that his daughter would pass on details of whence he had been abducted appears to have been overly optimistic, as it's not until traders bring news of a coup in Kalte that anyone in Sommerlund finds out that Vonotar is now ruling over the Ice Barbarians.

Anyway, public outcry has convinced the King that Vonotar must be brought back here to face justice, and I've been chosen to lead the expedition to apprehend him. Time to see what this version of me looks like...
Combat Skill: 13 (not good)
Endurance: 19
Kai Disciplines: Hunting, Sixth Sense, Healing, Weaponskill in... Quarterstaff, and Mindblast (provides a Combat Skill bonus against certain opponents).
If I remember rightly, in this book Mindshield is only really useful in dealing with the consequences of a bad decision, so I think I can make do without it.
The starting equipment list includes a Quarterstaff, so I'll take that. It feels weird to be paying any attention to the weapon selection.

The expeditionary team sets off in a (secretly) suitably equipped warship, but is blown around 30 miles off course in a blizzard. There's a pretty tight deadline on this quest, as the sea will be freezing over within around a month, so I decide against wasting a day sailing back to where we intended to moor the ship, and choose to start the land crossing from here. The guides mention two possible routes, one faster but more risky, the other longer but less hazardous. I'll take a chance on the latter.

One of the guides warns me about a mirage-like phenomenon as we commence the next stage of the voyage. We make good progress over the course of the day, and as we make camp for the night, my Sixth Sense warns me that we are being watched. Incidentally, comparing the two editions of this book, I have to say that this far the edits for the Mongoose version are less blatant, and do improve on the previous version.

The half-expected nocturnal attack fails to materialise, and the next morning the wind has died down and we're on section 291. Still not seeing any good reason why a cheat might have skipped to it. Another uneventful day's travel follows, and by nightfall we reach the shelter of the massive splinter of granite that the guides refer to as 'The Rock'. They have such a way with words.

The following day, the weather isn't so nice. Eventually we reach an ice shelf that shields us from the worst of the wind, and a trio of savage Baknar attack us. Thanks to my Weaponskill and Mindblast, I'm only slightly outclassed in the adventure's first combat. And thanks to the impressively skewed combat tables, I lose less than half my Endurance defeating the beast.

In the mean time, the guides have driven off the other Baknar with flaming torches. They then skin the corpse in order to get at the foul-smelling oil in its body, which is apparently great for keeping out the cold. I try some myself (though I do like the wording of the refusal option: 'If the thought of smelling like a vat of rancid cheese does not appeal to you...'), and discover that it also has the effect of blunting the sense of smell, so the stink no longer bothers me. Amusingly, the revised text adds a note pointing out that the effects of the oil do not persist beyond this book, doubtless to reassure all the LW readers who'd worried that subsequent adventures had the hero interacting with nobility while failing to realise that he still smelled like a yak latrine.

The next few days are uneventful, but then we get spotted by a party of Ice Barbarians. They outnumber us, they're better acclimatised to the conditions, they know the region better than we do, and if they catch up to us, we're doomed. I approve of the realism.

We hurry away, but Barbarian scouts on skis soon catch up to us. They all carry children on their backs, and the children are armed with bows and arrows. The writing keeps this from coming across as humorous, and within seconds my guides are all dead. One of the scouts levels a spear at me, and I find myself effectively jousting on ice. He knocks me down, but his momentum carries him past me, and I manage to get up while he stops and removes his skis. Thanks to the way the combat rules work, the Barbarian and I then kill each other.

While I did get a couple of very bad rolls in that last fight (and rolled a rubbish Combat Skill at the start), I have to say that I'm not convinced that the book manages to strike the right balance between being challenging for readers who've carried across a character from book 2 and being playable for anyone starting with this book. Peeking ahead, I see that if I had survived the fight, I would have had an opportunity to evade the rest of the Barbarians, so my Healing could have kicked in to bring me back from the verge of death before my next battle, so maybe my failure is down to bad luck rather than sub-optimal design. Nevertheless, I'm not sure I'll have much chance of winning the next couple of Lone Wolf adventures, either. At least there's a partial levelling effect due to come in with book 6...

Friday, 22 February 2013

Pyramid Power

The fifth Golden Dragon Fantasy Gamebook, Oliver Johnson's Curse of the Pharaoh, didn't make any impression on me back when I would flick through the books in shops. I acquired it as part of the set I bought when getting into the series, and memory suggests that I was in a car when I first attempted it. No dice were involved, and I recall only that I got myself teleported into a chamber where I had to sacrifice an item to get out again. I think that the first time I played it using dice, a string of bad rolls caused me to die in the very first fight.

As the title suggests, there's a distinctly Egyptian tone to the adventure, though it's set in a fictional analogue to Egypt rather than the real-world country. My character has come into possession of half a stone tablet that could be a lead to the long-lost tomb of the Pharaoh Kharput, and at the start of the adventure, he's nearing the end of a two-hundred-mile journey to the city where the man from whom he bought the stone acquired it. Arriving in the city of Arkos, he ignores the advice of passers-by and enters the charmingly named Inn of the Coiled Serpent to ask the barman for directions to the merchant who sold the half-tablet in the first place. The Inn's only other patron makes a hurried departure, which isn't suspicious at all.

The book's about to hand control of the character over to the reader, so some stats would not go amiss.
Vigour: 25
Psi: 9
Agility: 7
That Vigour's a little low, which could be a problem in view of some of the fun awaiting me.

Gabbad the antiquarian dealer lives near the bazaar, so I head there. It's getting late, and all but one of the traders have already shut up shop. The lone exception, Ahmed's Emporium, sells a variety of potentially useful items, and I can afford the lot and still have money left over, so I buy everything.

After that I can go gambling, go to another inn, watch a fire-eater or talk to some children. While approaching the children will lead to the fight that got me killed on a previous attempt, I'm pretty sure that the other options can lead to equally bad or worse trouble. The best-dressed of the children offers to take me to Gabbad, so I go with him. He leads me up some steep steps, and two black-robed assassins rush to attack me. The boy hasn't deliberately led me into a trap, though: he trips one of my attackers, who tumbles down the steps and is in no fit state to bother me any more by the time he reaches the bottom. I have to fight the other, though. And I win with ease - those must have been utterly abysmal rolls the time I lost that fight, as I'd have had to roll low at least four times as often as I rolled high in order to get defeated.

The boy leads me on to a nondescript house and introduces me to Gabbad, his uncle. I ask the old man where he got the stone, and he tells me that he had nothing but trouble as long as it was in his possession. Guess how delighted he is that I've brought it back. He explains that on one expedition into the desert, he encountered a delirious man with a remarkable number of broken bones, who claimed to have fallen foul of the Pharaoh's curse on account of not having the other half of the stone. He and his apprentice followed the man's blood trail, and just caught sight of the pyramid before a sandstorm blew up. He never saw pyramid or apprentice again.

Realising that he's just an expendable NPC, Gabbad decides to let his brother take over the family business, and he will try and lead me to the pyramid. The following morning he gives me a cloak and some water, and we're just setting off when a passing washer-woman turns out to be another inept Assassin in disguise. Despite being a worse fighter than the previous one, he manages to wound me a couple of times.

A momentary inexplicable shift of perspective occurs as we get going: 'soon you are tiny dots moving over the huge, undulating surface of sand'. We trek through the desert for two days, during which time none of the damage I've taken is healed, and our water starts getting low, even though one of the things I bought from that merchant is a bottle that always has some water in it. There appears to be an oasis nearby, but I know it's actually a monster in disguise, so I head into a bone-strewn gorge where we get attacked by Jaguars instead. Good thing I had the foresight to buy two Potions of Swiftness from Ahmed, eh? Gabbad and I each down one, and run the rest of the way to the pyramid before the Jaguars can lay a paw on us. Realising that he's served his purpose, Gabbad drops dead from exhaustion, and I continue on my way alone.

The pyramid entrance leads into a room illuminated by the sun shining through a hole in the ceiling. The room has no visible exits, but contains a large number of arrow-riddled skeletons and a statue with a jewel for its eyes. One gem, representing two eyes. Don't ask. It's almost midday, and the beam of light looks like it'll hit the gem dead on noon, so I wait to see what will happen then.

Actually, a secret door opens, but I'd already gone to the effort of getting the screen grab.

The passage revealed leads into a nearby hill, which turns out to be a disguised pyramid. There are alcoves set into the walls, so when I hear voices from up ahead, I quickly hide. Two tomb robbers approach, struggling to keep control of a magical rope they've found somewhere. This encounter is awkwardly structured: the robbers talk about having murdered the man from whom they took it, but that detail isn't mentioned until after I decide whether or not to attack them, so it's only after launching an apparently unprovoked ambush that I retrospectively learn that there is a degree of justification for my actions.

Making a mental note to look out for the flute the robbers didn't bother to take from their victim (but considered worthy of talking about as they passed my hiding place), I continue on my way. The next room also has a sun-hole in the ceiling, and contains a plinth, on which I can see a golden goblet of wine, some golden apples, and a sun-shaped medallion. There's a trap here, but the section leaves out the direction to the paragraph where the trap is sprung, so I can only actually choose between inadvertently disarming the trap and ignoring the whole set-up. Actually, when I originally added CotP to my gamebook manager, I checked the errata at Demian's gamebook site and added the missing number, but this book is tough enough without deliberately harming my character just because I can. So I take the medallion, thereby dispelling the illusion and discovering that the wine is gas (some noxious heavier-than-air substance that's remained toxic for centuries, if that makes any sense) and the apples are snakes.

Continuing on my way, I notice that a hole has been made in the wall. I look through it, and see a chamber containing two golden scorpions and an assortment of treasure. I also spot some sloppy writing: the hole was small, and at head height, but I have the option of crawling through it as if it were larger and lower. Not worth the hassle.

Further on, niches contain statues representing this land's animal-headed deities. Two are empty, the one dedicated to Bos the bone cracker and the one devoted to the serpentine Ipo. I remember that the first of these is what teleported me the first time I played this book. The other one is also a teleporter, but with a more interesting twist: stepping into the niche will transport me to the climactic battle. That would enable me to avoid all the traps, fights and other inconveniences between here and there, but it also means missing out on the opportunity to acquire items that would give me a much better chance of winning the fight. I'll take the longer but potentially safer route.

Steps lead down to a causeway across a crocodile-infested lake. In the middle of the causeway is a platform with a small pyramid on it, and there's a golden casket atop the mini-pyramid. Two wooden statues partially block the causeway, a raft is moored beside it, and the accompanying illustration puts the statues and raft in the wrong places and has rubbish-looking crocodiles. I can't remember how this trap works, but I'm guessing that going between the statues will trigger it, as going around them looks riskier on account of the potential for getting knocked into the lake. Nope, it's either more or less subtle than that: as I edge past a statue, it tries to push me off the causeway, and I fail the Agility roll to dodge, so the crocodiles get to eat me.

Provided I can maintain the three-playthroughs-a-week pace, and don't make any drastic changes to the schedule, I should get to a much better Egyptian-themed gamebook in about four months' time. Funnily enough, that's not far off the length of time that elapsed between my originally acquiring CotP and this other one.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

A Plot So Fiendish, So Infernal, So Heinous...

The mini-adventure in issue 5 of Warlock magazine was one of the runners-up in the competition that gave us The Dervish Stone: Dungeon of Justice by Jonathan Ford. I must have got that issue on a Friday or a Saturday, as my clearest associated memory from back then is of reading some of the deaths once I'd checked out the stalls at the jumble sale or coffee morning the family was attending.

I'm fudging character creation again, but for the opposite reason to usual: if my Skill is too high in this adventure, I am guaranteed to fail. I roll a six, two twos and a five, so I'll go with:
Skill 8
Stamina 19
Luck 12
The likelihood of my getting the desired outcome at the appropriate moment is still low, but above the zero that it would have been if that six had gone on Skill. And now for the real challenge: keeping this playthrough of DoJ from becoming a carbon copy of my previous one.

Like many FF adventurers, I am seeking fame and fortune. I'm about to take a short cut through the Desert of Skulls when I happen to witness the killing of an Elvan (sic.) Chief. Moments later I am surrounded by more than a score of bow-wielding Elves and, based on the ecnedive (that's 'evidence' spelled backwards to indicate just how much it doesn't point to my guilt), I am accused of the murder. The Elves lead me into the forest (yes, I was about to cross a desert) and force me into their inaccurately-named Dungeon of Justice. If I can find the Golden Idol concealed within the labyrinth, that will convince the Elves that I'm innocent. It's almost as ridiculous as some real-world conceptions of justice.

A short distance into the Dungeon, I encounter and am attacked by a terrified-looking man with black robes and a dagger: another 'defendant'. The fact that there can be more than one 'trial' taking place at the same time adds a further layer of stupidity to the set-up - this is, effectively, a 'court' that cannot give more than one 'not guilty' verdict a day. Unless we could team up and, provided one of us found the Idol, be collectively exonerated. But that outcome would still have nothing to do with whether or not we'd actually committed the crimes of which we'd been accused.

It's academic, as I have to kill him in self-defence (so, regardless of my history prior to the adventure, I am now definitely a killer as a consequence of needing to prove that I wasn't one). A little further on, I reach a junction. It's irrelevant, but I'm going to go exploring just for a bit of variety. The side passage leads to a door, and the room beyond contains a sleeping dog. There's another door on the far side, and a key on a nail. The text and illustration disagree on the location of the nail.

I creep across the room, wondering if this is a vaguely clever trap where taking the key will set off an alarm and wake the dog, but no: my sword clinks against a stone. My Luck is high enough that the dog doesn't wake up, so I tiptoe to the far door, carefully take the key, quietly unlock the door, creep through it... and inexplicably slam the door behind me, waking the dog, and having to hurriedly relock the door as the hound repeatedly tries to break through it.

Before long the corridor turns north, so I'm heading parallel to the one I left. There's a door in one of the walls, so I peek through. The room beyond contains a hole - not a very deep one, but a passage runs north out of it. At a point I didn't live long enough to reach in Deathtrap Dungeon, the correct route involved following a passage out of a pit. Which makes me suspect that this may be a trap designed to catch out players who remember that bit of DD, so as I know that going this way is not essential, I shall avoid it altogether.

Returning to the passage, I ignore a side turning that would take me back to the parallel corridor. Continuing on my way, I reach a flight of stairs leading down, and get attacked by a morning star-wielding Dwarf. He doesn't survive, and the stairs lead down to an awkwardly-described room. As far as I can tell, it has one exit leading north and two going south (including the stairs I just descended), so I guess that hole wasn't just a trap after all.

Oh, and the room also contains a pile of gold, but that initially failed to catch my eye because I was too busy noticing the exit in the wall behind me that I'm not going to have the option of taking. The door leading north is locked, but the key from the room with the dog fits it. It also triggers a booby-trap, but my Luck suffices for me to dodge the darts fired at me.

Beyond the door is a damp passage that takes me east and north. Further on, an impressive-looking door is set into the east wall. It leads to a room containing an old man asleep on a wooden chair. There's another door leading north, but I don't want to leave just yet. Searching the room turns up nothing of use, and I don't want to kill the man in his sleep, so I wake him. He's terrified of me, and offers me all his money if I spare him. Okay, so considering what this place has been designed to do, it's understandable that he should take me for a dangerous man, though that doesn't explain what he's doing here if he's not a suspect. I only wanted to question him, but the text forces me to choose between robbing and murdering the man, so I just take the money. After he's opened a secret panel, taken out his worldly goods and handed them to me, I again have the option of killing him. The alternative is taking the door north, and the section number for doing so is the same as for leaving without disturbing the man, so there's little likelihood of his unexpectedly eviscerating me when I drop my guard. Thus, I will continue to not kill him, shaking my head at the effort it has taken.

Beyond the door, a passage slopes upwards, eventually becoming so steep that I have to chimney my way onwards. No chance of turning back, but since doing so would probably lead to another half-dozen 'are you sure you don't want to kill the old man?' decisions, I'll take the climb. Eventually I emerge onto a ledge above a river, with steps leading down to the river. I'm going up and down more often than the Grand Old Duke of York's men here!

The river is spanned by a rickety, termite-infested bridge, with an accompanying illustration that indicates a serious breakdown of communications between artist and writer. I ignore the bridge, as using it will significantly decrease the odds of my winning, and jump into the river. Tiresomely, I fail to fail the resultant Skill roll, so I don't get swept away to the beach where the Idol has been hidden. Stupid adventure design.

Three doors lead on from the beach on this side of the river. I try the east one because I don't want to repeat the glorious yet futile triumph that was the most noteworthy element of my last attempt at this shambles. Beyond the door is a tunnel that gets narrower and lower as I go along, until eventually I have to crawl. Luckily I find a stone with which I can smash it wider. And it ends at a door with a combination lock. Not knowing the combination, I have to go back to the beach.

West, then. The passage beyond that door leads to a junction. Further west is probably a trap, but it no longer matters, so I check it out anyway. It leads to another junction. West again. Another junction, sort of, only the way west has been blocked by a rock fall, and I only notice the turning north as I'm about to turn round and go back east. When I do see it, I'm forced to take it.

It leads to a chamber containing a large ruby, protected by moving spikes. Nothing that I do in this adventure matters any more, so I might as well try and get the ruby. I succeed, and head back the way I came. The next (or previous) turning north leads to a room containing two bubbling pools of mud. There are ledges on either side, and a causeway between the pools. I guess this is where I can encounter the Mud Dragon depicted on the cover of the magazine.

Taking the causeway would leave me vulnerable to attack from either pool, or both. On a ledge, I'd be out of range of whatever lives in one pool, but a ledge could be more precarious and unsafe. Oh, what's the point of trying to work out the safest way onwards when I've already failed? I take the right ledge just because. As I head along it, the mud below me becomes agitated, gas bubbles burst, filling the room with the stink of rotting meat, and nothing else happens. I reach the exit and continue north.

Unsurprisingly, the passage turns east. There's a door in one of the walls: the text doesn't indicate which one. I open it anyway, and see only darkness beyond. Being doomed whatever I do, I step through. Not possessing the Ring of Skill (now that's a nasty treasure to be providing in this high-Skill-penalising dump), I trigger a trap, causing the floor to give way beneath me, but I manage to leap back onto solid ground in the nick of time.

After carelessly blundering into a man-trap, I limp to a crossroads, where I have no choice but to go north. Here comes the endgame. Yup, I reach a door with a multilingual sign that says, in effect, 'Now you're for it!' Beyond the door is an old man who asks if I have the Idol. So I can tell the truth and get killed by the Elves, or attack him and get killed by his magical defences. Well, there's no mechanism in place to stop me from cheating and claiming to have found the Idol, but I'm not going to stoop that low. I admit my failure, get taken out to face a hundreds-strong firing squad, and thumb my nose at my accuser as the arrows fly my way.

Considering that this was one of the runners-up in the contest, I dread to think what the entries that rated below it must have been like.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Cold Warrior

Last Wednesday I played a gamebook involving a trek across a desert, in which my character was (by authorial compulsion) forced to slog onwards during the day, exposed to the merciless heat of the sun. In the real world, it snowed outside. On Friday I played a gamebook set in Greece at the height of summer, and while it barely merited a mention in the blog entry owing to its lack of plot relevance, sunbathing took up a good deal of my character's free time. Thanks to the idiosyncratic behaviour of the thermostat in my home, I could see my breath forming clouds in the air as I typed my playthrough up. There seems to be a distinct mismatch between the settings of the gamebooks I feature here, and the conditions I experience in reality.

Paul Creelman's Circle of Ice is the third Tunnels & Trolls Pocket Adventure. It's set in a world where there's an ongoing conflict between the Realms of Light and Darkness (whose titles, to judge by the information provided, have more to do with colour schemes than morality). The Circle of Ice is independent, with borders on both Realms. My character has been engaged by the Realm of Darkness to map the Circle, and it's not clear whether or not he has any choice in the matter.

I rolled up a slightly above-average character (with a sub-par Charisma), but decided to make him a Dwarf rather than a human, making him significantly more formidable (and even less attractive).
Strength: 18
Intelligence: 13
Luck: 15
Constitution: 26
Dexterity: 10
Charisma: 5
Speed: 13
Considering how the combat system works, I think the ability to inflict damage is more useful than being able to reduce damage taken, so he has minimal armour and the best weapon he can handle - a war hammer.

I am transported to an icy tunnel, through which an arctic gale blows northwards. From now on, every time I turn to a new section, I must roll against Constitution, taking damage if I fail. There's definite potential for a death spiral there. Still, my chances of failing such a roll are only one in nine, and those odds won't change until I've taken significant damage. Plus, I get experience points for every roll, so even just walking around will help me towards levelling up. If I had an edged weapon, I might waste a little time digging. But I don't, so I can't.

Walking the way the wind blows, I reach a chamber with a sunken well in it. Footholds have been carved into its sides, so I could climb down into it if I wanted to. My Dexterity's not that great, though, so for now I'll just search the room. While doing so I fail the Constitution roll for the first time, but I do find a cache, which contains... a rare type of spider that lives on ice particles and snowflakes. Words cannot express how impressed I am.

Now I find myself wondering what the writer meant by 'a new paragraph' at the start. A paragraph other than the one I've just read, or a paragraph I haven't previously read on this attempt? I'll have to roll more often if it's the former. In view of certain peculiarities of how level advancement works, I think I'll go with the latter, otherwise I could theoretically wind up getting to increase my Dexterity just as a result of running back and forth.

There's no way onwards, so I'll check out the well before turning back. The footholds only last for 20 feet, but a lucky roll means that I take no harm from the subsequent drop. I had the foresight to bring some torches with me, so the darkness isn't a problem, either.

My second failed Constitution roll comes disproportionately early. I'm in another north-south passage, so I continue north, reaching a room with 'trap' written all over it. A pool of oily liquid surrounds a pedestal which bears a grotesque ice statue, its four arms clutching a bowl full of red gems. A second pedestal has a crude switch on it, and an inscription that looks more like an unfamiliar language than a code. Or is that just because one of the words looks a lot like the Russian for 'winter'?

Avoiding pool, statue, switch and gems for the moment, I examine my surroundings more closely, discovering another cache. Fortuitously avoiding triggering a booby-trap that opens a gateway to the Inferno (what the...?), I find a magical locket that enables me to create an illusory mirror. But only under the light of a full moon (unless I can find out the secret name of its original owner) - obviously the author recognised the vital importance of keeping adventurers from using that power willy-nilly.

I don't trust anything else in the room, so I go south. Before long, a red ice sculpture blocks my way. It's an 'extremely realistic' representation of an ancient warrior from the Realm of Darkness. It holds seven enchanted slingstones, which can go through armour and walls and inflict impressive amounts of damage on living organic creatures with no fire resistance. I don't own a sling, so they're currently of no use to me, but at least if the sculpture comes to life, it won't be able to use them against me.

Nothing happens when I take the stones. Any or all of the remaining options could, potentially, cause the sculpture to come to life and attack me. So I try the oddest one: talking to it. Nothing happens, beyond my feeling a little foolish (except that the Constitution roll takes my Experience total into triple figures).All right, then, time for the traditionalist approach: hit it wiv an 'ammer.

The hammer breaks. The heart of the sculpture gives off a faint red glow. It's time for another traditional stratagem: to depart the vicinity in haste. Which turns out to be the one thing that will bring the statue to life. And now I don't even have a functional weapon. Mind you, with the statue's stats, I wouldn't have survived the first round of combat even if I could still use the hammer.

Friday, 15 February 2013

It's Over There, Between the Land and the Sky!

The Starlight Adventures series was Puffin Books' attempt at getting more girls reading gamebooks. Like most, if not all of the publishers who sought to prolong the gamebook boom by targeting female readers, they decided that the bait required was romance. But they did at least make it a sub-plot (sometimes even a near-optional one), rather than making it the sole focus of the book.

One of my sisters owned a couple of the SA books back in the eighties, and I had a go at them because they were gamebooks. One was the exceedingly railroady Riddle of the Runaway, which I have no desire to ever read again. The other was the more challenging Island of Secrets, by Kim Jordan, which I never did manage to successfully complete. At some point after getting back into gamebooks, I came across a copy of Island in the local Cancer Research UK shop, and bought it, hoping to actually solve the mystery. Life's multitudinous distractions kept me from getting very far with it, but given that it's that time of the year, I'm dusting it off for the purposes of this blog.

As far as I'm aware, there's no consistent system to the SA books. IoS has a degree of randomisation, and uses Luck Points to keep track of how well the reader is doing. This does bring about one of the more peculiar aspects of the book: as I recall, the Luck penalty for getting into trouble with the Police is significantly higher than the loss of Luck for having your drowned corpse wash ashore. About the only other thing I remember at all clearly is the point where the flip of a coin or the roll of a die determines whether 'you' fail to solve the mystery or find a skull, freak out, and then fail to solve the mystery. Evidently not on the optimal path. Unless this is an interactive Bildungsroman with the moral that you're never going to find out all the answers in life, in which getting out with your life and reputation intact is the best you can hope for. Which is, frankly, not massively likely.

At the start of the book, my character just managed to snag a summer job as a villa girl on the Greek island of Simnos, in part as a means of avoiding (or at least delaying) having to take a job with the insurance company that employs her boyfriend Nigel. Obviously that relationship's going well...

Upon arrival at Simnos, I am greeted by Penny, who is to be my co-worker for the next few months. She drives me to the villa, and in my room I find an old pamphlet about the history of the island. There's no time to read it now, though, as I have guests to organise. The woman in room 6 is complaining about the en suite facilities, and appears to be trying to intimidate me into giving her and her husband a free upgrade. I politely but firmly tell her to take her complaints to head office, and then head out onto the balcony for a breath of fresh air and a chance of overhearing something important (okay, the book only mentions the 'fresh air' aspect, but I've read and watched enough Agatha Christies to know the value of inadvertent eavesdropping).

Well, I don't overhear anything, but I do catch sight of Penny getting friendly with a man who doesn't look like a local, but lacks the air of a tourist. Something to think about while I peel potatoes. After the meal, Penny is eager to gossip, mentioning our unsociable neighbour Garth, the visiting author Matt (who sounds like the man I saw her with earlier, and claims to be suffering from writer's cramp), and windsurfing trainer and lothario Panos. She then decides to head off to a local nightclub, and I go for a walk because I've got to stumble across a lead somehow, right?

Along the way I catch sight of the island of Simnaki, former site of a temple to Aphrodite. Hearing someone coming up the hill behind me, I look back and see Matt, who is lost in thought and has yet to notice me. The writing here is a little unclear: I'm offered the option of continuing up the hill or descending, but the choice which involves moving towards the 'author' turns out to be an attempt at avoiding him. Still, he blocks my way and invites me for a glass of ouzo at the mill where he lives, so I get a chance to investigate his activities anyway.

Sort of a chance. There's someone waiting outside the mill, and upon catching sight of him, Matt claims that it's a business associate with whom he needs to discuss things, and sends me home. My character not yet having twigged that this is a mystery rather than a Mills & Boon, I am annoyed at having been spurned rather than curious about what is afoot.

Back at the villa, I cannot sleep, so I read that pamphlet. It includes an account of the tale of a drunkard who disappeared after sheltering from a storm in the ruined temple on Simnaki. He reappeared a week later on the far side of the island, raving about having been taken to see Aphrodite on her golden throne. After that he kept going back to the ruins, eventually vanishing again, this time for good.

Next morning Penny is hungover, and asks me to get the shopping. Tiresomely, I can't go straight to the shops, but have to make a detour that will bring me into the vicinity of one of the men she told me about yesterday. Matt is so obviously shifty that it might be worth investigating someone else. I opt for the nosy neighbour routine.

Garth's villa shows no sign of any human presence, but a couple of dogs block my way. I decide to see if they're less hostile than they appear, but Luck is not with me, and they chase me away. So I head on into town, get the required supplies, and invest in a hat for protection from the sun. I can also buy one other item if I want, so I go for the pendant with a strange symbol. It turns out to be a sign related to Aphrodite, so I might have just inadvertently picked up the local equivalent of a Horga'hn.

Time passes, during which the text has me start to learn windsurfing (though Panos' jealous girlfriend averts the risk of a compulsory romance with him) and get to know a few archaeology students, only one of whom is apparently plot relevant enough to merit a name: Liam. Then, one night, Penny persuades me to go out clubbing with her. At a bar she introduces me to Liam (I only met him a section ago, Ms. Jordan!), who's splitting his time between a dig on Simnaki and a ruined fort. He offers to take me to the fort tomorrow, and then Penny announces that Garth has made arrangements for her and me to join him on a trip to a millionaire's yacht tomorrow. I choose to go to the fort, an argument breaks out, and the die determines that I wind up rescheduling the fort trip. But I get to choose between going to the yacht and staying in the villa to spite Penny. Unnecessarily annoying colleagues rarely ends well, besides which there may be some useful info on the yacht, so I agree to her plan. Liam is not overjoyed at this, and the evening ends poorly.

The following day I have the option of changing my plans. Not sure how easy it would be to contact Liam and say I will go with him after all in a pre-mobile phone setting, so I'll stick with what I'd decided on. Though the potential for casual negation of what all that fuss was about last night rather suggests that I might have learned something of use if I'd chosen or rolled differently.

Penny and I head for Garth's villa, and as on my previous visit, there's no sign of him, but the dogs come rushing towards us. If I'd befriended them last time, I'd know their names, but I didn't, so... That's interesting. The section listed three pairs of names for the dogs, plus 'no idea', so I assumed that two of the pairs were just there to try and trick cheats who aren't smart enough to bookmark the section while they check out as many pairs as it takes to get the right one. After all, the likelihood of guessing their names at random without even a clue about what was on their owner's mind when he named them is infinitesimally tiny. But the 'no idea' section says to either guess or give up, then lists the same possibilities as before, so implausibly lucky guessing is explicitly a valid option here.

I only got one name right, but that's enough to get me a second chance. One of the remaining pairs includes a name that's not from Greek mythology, so I'm ruling that out. And that's placated the dogs, so we can get to the villa. Which is deserted, but Garth turns up before I have time to do more than notice a bit of paper with names on it, linking Matt's to the yacht owner's, and with a question mark by Liam's. I wonder if Garth is some kind of investigator.

At the yacht we are introduces to Koutalas, our host, who leads Garth away to introduce him to someone. Penny spots Matt, and wants to join him. I leave her to it, and a chance collision with another partygoer spills drink on my dress, forcing me to go off in search of water to avert a stain. Surely now I can overhear something...

My wanderings lead me to Koutalas' bedroom, which has an en suite bathroom, and also contains many books, including a detective novel by one Rex Vittuli, which contains a dedication in vaguely familiar-looking handwriting. I'm in the bathroom, attending to my dress, when I hear someone come into the bedroom. I keep quiet, and whoever it is leaves again. Garth snooping around?

Voices come through the bathroom porthole. At last. One is sinister and possibly familiar, the other new and American. Sinister wants things sped up, and American protests in a manner suggesting that archaeological work is involved. Sinister asks if Rex is cooperating (author Rex? Matt's pen name?), and American says he's too desperate to refuse. A peek through the porthole reveals only that one of the men has a serpent tattoo. They move off, and I decide to get back to the party before my absence is noticed. Penny has been abandoned by Matt, and we wind up heading back to shore with Garth before long.

Back at the villa I turn my attention to the airmail letters from Nigel that never got a mention before now, at least on the path I've followed through the book. Not even a throw-away reference in the 'time passes' section - I went back to it to double-check that I hadn't been inattentive. The first letter indicates that my family are unhappy at my not having written to them. I can save the second for later and get some rest, but that's probably not a very clever thing to do. No, it wouldn't have been, because it announces that he's coming to visit me. Due to arrive a week after he wrote the letter, so probably quite soon. Yep, the day after tomorrow. I have an intuition that this will not end well.

I can discuss this with someone. None of the potential conversation partners look particularly useful in that regard, but calling on Matt might provide further opportunities to find evidence of what he's up to. That's a bit of a metaknowledgey motivation, but if I wanted to rôle-play a young woman without a clue as to what's going on... that'd be rather odd.

No, no investigative opportunities, just a blunt, 'nothing to do with me.' Nigel phones to check that everything's okay for his visit. I tell him to cancel: as the reader of this book, I have nothing invested in the relationship, and I've seen nothing to indicate that it's going anywhere good, so keeping him away doesn't look that bad a choice even in character. Nigel loses his temper and dumps me, and I get disapproving scowls from eavesdropping villa guests.

Another 'passage of time' section. The guest who complained about the room has left, as has Greg (whoever he was). 'It is probable that you are still having difficulty in deciding where your romantic preference lies.' Or maybe I just don't care that much about any of the potential partners who've been presented, hmm?

I attend a beach barbecue. Panos surfs there, prompting musings on the dangers of surfing at night. I decide to visit Simnaki the next day. Of the available companions for the trip, Liam looks like the best bet: Matt is liable to steer me away from anything connected with whatever he's up to, Penny's too self-centred for my liking, and Panos would probably divert the plot into an inadvisable dalliance. I could go on my own, but Liam has potentially relevant knowledge. I interrupt his attempts at using Greek mythology to chat up a French girl, and arrangements are made.

The next day, I join the archaeological team on the boat to Simnaki. Overheard chat indicates that Orlando, the team leader, is overly hands-off in his approach to the work, and that Koutalas is sponsoring the dig. And there are rumours of a lost treasure. Aren't there always?

The archaeological work is slow, meticulous, painstaking, and nothing like Raiders of the Lost Ark might have suggested. I am asked who I came with, and the list doesn't mention Panos, but does have Garth on it. An error, or would choosing to go it alone or with Panos have somehow have led to winding up with Garth?

Liam reveals that the temple is in ruins because of seismic activity. The island is an extinct volcano, not that the book's likely to have an 'it's not so extinct after all, and you die in an eruption' ending. Liam wants to show me a tomb. If he thinks this is a date, he has some funny ideas about how to impress a girl. I think I've gone back to that textual dead end I remember from the '80s, as I find myself being encouraged to pull out the stone which marks a concealed chamber designed for treasure storage. A flip of a coin establishes... that I can't shift it. In fact, none of the archaeologists have been able to open up the chamber yet. It's even possible that the chamber contains a legendary gold and ivory statue of Aphrodite. Okay, I can see how Liam might have considered 'give her a chance of finding the lost treasure' a way to make a good impression on a member of the opposite sex. Even if it did give most of the other archaeologists apoplexy...

I have the option of going for a wander. Might as well give it a go. I'll go west, because that appears to be heading towards the far side of the island, and the tale of that drunkard could indicate the existence of a secret passage from the temple that ends there. Before long my way is blocked by a barbed wire fence bearing a sign warning of dangerous ground. Could just be to deter the curious, so I'll ignore it.

The path beyond is suspiciously well-worn. I hear voices, and realise that I'm not likely to be welcome here. Quickly hiding, I watch as a man in a white suite (sic.) helps his companion through the wire. The suit matches the archaeologists' description of Orlando, and the man with him has the tattoo I saw on the yacht. This definitely merits further investigation.

I find a tomb like the one Liam showed me. Someone's dropped a wallet near the entrance. Credit cards indicate it to belong to Rex Vitulli, and an ID card bears Matt's photo. Called it! Though my character is surprised at this revelation. Still, she's resourceful enough to be carrying a flashlight, and has enough guts to enter the tomb, despite skeletal remains and rats. The tomb has a few features of potential interest, but I focus on the stone like the one Liam showed me. Bingo! The treasure's behind it. Not just the statue, but all sorts of other loot ancient artefacts. And the looseness of the stone suggests that I'm not the only person to have removed it recently.

I tell Liam of my discovery, and he voices the suspicions he's had about the dig all along. We make arrangements to try and catch the criminals in the act of removing the treasure. So either he's read too many Famous Five books at an impressionable age, or he's in on it and setting me up, but the book's giving me no choice here.

Back on Simnos, I wake in the middle of the night, and am asked what time I set my alarm to go off. There's been no mention of the alarm before, so I'll pick the earliest option. The boats on the beach have all had their oars removed or been otherwise immobilised, so the only way to get to Simnaki is by windsurfing. 'Foreshadowing: your key to quality literature.' Liam can't windsurf, which makes it more likely that he's not a villain, but means I'm on my own.

The roll of the die gets me across the sea unharmed, and I head for the tomb with the treasure. 'Matt' and some others are hard at work removing stuff from it. I slip, making enough noise to attract attention, and wind up with four criminals on my tail. I manage to hide from them, but they find my surfboard and trash it, so my only means of escape is by swimming.

About half way across I hear an outboard motor. Could be the criminals, so I move out of its way. The sea gets rough, and I don't make it back to Simnos. And drowning this way is just as bad as getting arrested, Luck-wise.

That's the furthest I've ever been through the book. It has its flaws and inconsistencies, and the increase in 'roll a die' moments towards the end is bothersome, but the way clues are fed to the reader along the way is handled rather well. Based on that attempt, it's more enjoyable than some gamebooks for which I am part of the target audience.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

The Desert is Always Dangerous

"In Temple of Terror, you are the hero and you are on a vital mission."

In June 1985, one of the homework assignments set by my English teacher, 'Diddy' Davies, was to write a book review. As indicated by the opening line quoted above, I chose to review Ian Livingstone's most recent gamebook. I'm not sure quite how long I'd had the book by then: publication history indicates that it had already been out for over a month, and my review indicates that I'd played it at least six times by then (it wasn't until the sixth attempt that I realised that the wall of text at section 180 included a reference to being given 25 Gold Pieces).

I must have acquired the book on a Saturday or during half term, as I was in town with my dad when I first attempted it, in the pub on Camden Road. By then I was FF geek enough to already have dice on me, and I was more or less playing by the rules, hence the frustration I experienced when the Giant Eagle on which my character was riding got into a fight with a Pterodactyl that had a higher Skill score, and all I could do was roll the dice until the Eagle was dead and my character was plummeting to his doom. Second time around I got luckier in that fight, but I now know it to be on a false trail, so I'd have failed that try even if I hadn't missed a chunk of the action by reading section 38 when I should have been looking at section 39.

This is a book in which fudging character creation may be advisable, not just on account of the two unavoidable fights against opponents with double-figure Skill scores, but also because the best route through it includes a 'succeed or die' Skill roll that has prematurely ended a statistically improbable number of attempts at the adventure. And I roll three ones and a four, which is pretty abysmal. Nevertheless, with
Skill: 10
Stamina: 14
Luck: 7
I still have a reasonable chance of getting further than in my last playthrough.

"You must travel to the lost city of Vatos and get five carved dragons before the evil Malbordus can get to them. If he gets just one, he can turn it into a dragon and destroy your homeland, Allansia."

My teen self's plot summary fails to pick up on the subtle nuances of Malbordus' characterisation: he's evil because he was born under a full moon, and there were wolves outside the hut. Well, to be fair, the book only gives that as a possible explanation for his wicked ways, but an idea that stupid shouldn't even be in there as a suggestion. Another detail eighties-me left out is that Malbordus' search for the carved dragons is a rite of passage, to prove to the evil Dark Elves who raised him after he was abandoned by his mother (don't you love black-and-white morality?) that he is worthy to learn their most powerful magic and lead the army they are raising to conquer Allansia.

At the start of the adventure, my character is at Stonebridge village, recuperating after an unspecified adventure (possibly The Forest of Doom, though that's never made explicit, and I certainly don't have the helmet which was given to the triumphant hero of Forest) when the wizard Yaztromo turns up bearing news of Malbordus' plans, which he knows because his pet crow overheard an exposition-heavy conversation between Malbordus and the Dark Elves (what, all of them?). I volunteer to try and thwart Malbordus' schemes, so Yaztromo takes me back to his tower to teach me magic. Yes, apparently it is that easy. All right, so I can only learn four out of a possible ten spells, but this is an emergency, so we can only spare a couple of minutes.

Vatos is somewhere in the Desert of Skulls. Deserts don't contain a whole lot of water, so Create Water is an obvious choice. They can get very cold at night, so Fire also has its merits. Jump could be useful, I suppose. I remember enough from past attempts that I don't really need Read Symbols, but I'll take it anyway, because there are problems with most of the others: I'm only aware of one situation where Light can be cast, and in that instance it's better overall to remain in the dark. I have no recollection of ever needing to cast Language. Magic Arrow is most useful on the route that guarantees failure. Creature Sleep only works on opponents weak enough that the Stamina cost of casting it could be higher than the damage I'd take just fighting the creature. Detect Trap is timey-wimey and inconsistent - it causes you to cast itself when there's a trap in the vicinity, but apparently doesn't consider an unseen sword blade at ankle-height to be a trap. Open Door I'll rant about in the appropriate place, if I get that far.

Yaztromo gives me some money, and has his crow guide me as far as the Catfish River, where I buy passage to Port Blacksand on a barge. Shortly after arrival, I encounter an old man who offers to lead me to cheap accommodation for the night. I know the book well enough to be aware that this set-up is as legitimate as Joe's Garage, but walking into the trap is the only way of acquiring an essential item. The thugs who attack me are dim enough to fight one at a time, but they wouldn't be much of a challenge even attacking simultaneously. I defeat them and take their treasure, then manage to find a tavern in which I can get a room.

In return for a small bribe, the barman introduces me to the first mate of the Belladonna, a ship that's heading the way I want to go, and I book passage. As I'm heading for the stairs, a man bumps into me and spills the drinks he's carrying. The subsequent fight is not inevitable, but avoiding it comes at too high a cost, and I defeat the Pirate with ease.

The next morning, I head for the docks and discover that the Belladonna is a pirate ship. The first mate tells me that I'll have to help load cannonballs if there's a battle, as one of the gunners died in a tavern brawl last night. It's a small world...

In the afternoon we have a run-in with a hostile man-of-war, which manages to hole the Belladonna. This is where that tiresome Skill roll occurs, and it's a 'roll under' rather than 'roll equal to or under' one, so failure would be a possibility even if I had the maximum possible skill. But today I'm in luck, and manage to escape from the ship before it goes down..

I swim to the man-of-war, which turns out to be crewed by Dwarfs (so shouldn't it be a dwarf-of-war?), and explain my mission. Suspecting that I'm a pirate making up a story to save my neck, the Captain asks me a trivia question about Stonebridge, which I have no difficulty answering. The Dwarfs replenish my Provisions and take me as close to Vatos as they can. Which isn't that close, given the location of the city and their means of transport, but they do drop me off on the shore of the desert.

I head inland, and am soon attacked by Needle Flies, giant wasp-like insects that fight me one at a time because in this cramped and congested desert there's no room to assault me on multiple fronts simultaneously. If I'd learned to cast Magic Arrow, I could have used that to defeat the Flies, at a cost of 6 more Stamina than I actually lose in the fight. Guess how much I'm kicking myself for not having picked it.

Continuing on my way, I find a dead man clutching a pouch that contains a golden key. This is not the most random and arbitrary 'find something of use' encounter in the book. A little later I encounter a man on a camel, who offers to trade me a canister of water for one of the valuables I acquired in Blacksand. It's an affordable price, but the Create Water spell has no Stamina cost, so I needn't bother. Next, Ian Livingstone rolls a 32 on the Giant Sand Creatures encounter table, and my pathetic Luck score causes me to get caught in the sandstorm long enough to take some Skill damage, and to miss what is the most random and arbitrary 'find something of use' encounter in the book.

Last decade I spent a couple of weeks in the Middle East on a working holiday. While that experience doesn't qualify me as an expert in desert survival, it has made me aware that the way this book handles the topic is... not good, to say the least. During the afternoon, my character pauses in his trek for a drink of water, then trudges onwards until he spots a nomad's tent.

A nomadic trader's tent - what would a gamebook be without the chance to spend money on stochastic tat? While there's little likelihood of my surviving long enough to get to use any of the worthwhile items, I buy the Onyx Egg, Bracelet of Mermaid Scales and Crystal Key.

Resuming my trek, I am attacked by a Giant Sandworm. Its Skill is higher than mine, its Stamina is higher than mine, and my Luck gives me a less than 50% chance of improving my chances at all during the fight. So I'm quite impressed that I managed to bring it down to its last 2 Stamina points before getting killed.

"I would advise you to stay alert with this book. Who knows what will happen next?"

On this occasion, the game ends.

Monday, 11 February 2013

You Just Can't Get the Staff These Days

The third of the Mongoose Publishing Lone Wolf reissues includes as its bonus adventure Laszlo Cook's Vonotar's Web. I've never attempted it before, and all I know about it is that the 'you' character is Loi-Kymar, a wizard who plays a significant part in the endgame of the main adventure. When first encountered by Lone Wolf, he is a prisoner of the book's villain, and this is a prequel, so I suppose it's supposed to show how he winds up in the cell where Lone Wolf finds him. Though, given my success rate with LW mini-adventures so far, it seems more likely that it will depict what happened in an alternate universe where Loi-Kymar died prematurely, so Lone Wolf failed to apprehend his captor.

More or less standard rules, though Combat Skill is between 5 and 14 rather than 10 and 19 because I'm an old man. And instead of choosing Kai Disciplines, I choose the contents of my Herb Pouch, which can hold up to 6 herbs. There are half a dozen different types of herb from which to choose, so either I have the option of taking more than one portion of a given herb, or somebody hasn't quite figured out how this 'picking from a list' thing works yet.

In any case, my stats for this adventure are:
Combat Skill 7
Endurance 22
Both of which are pretty low, so the Herb Pouch contains two doses of the Combat Skill-enhancing Alether, three doses of the medicinal Laumspur, and one of the psychic defence-strengthening Red Brushwort. And I have a Crystal Star Pendant and a nightshirt. Clearly this is another example of the not-that-common 'adventuring in your bedclothes' subgenre. Wonder how it compares with the last one of those I played.

I wake unexpectedly in the middle of the night, and become aware that someone has snuck into my bedroom and stolen my Guildstaff, which confers upon me the power of teleportation. A light gleams downstairs, and I hear faint voices. As I've lived alone since my wife died, it would appear that the thieves are still here. I decide to have a quick look around my room for useful items - what with wizards' propensity for accumulating all manner of arcane clutter, there's a reasonable possibility of my coming up with something a little more threatening than the pillow or bedside lamp that are the most weaponisable items in my real-life bedroom. Besides, most of the other options available look pretty rubbish: calling out, "Who's there?" is unlikely to achieve much, and defiantly marching downstairs to startle the intruders fails to take into account the fact that an old man in his night attire isn't that intimidating a sight.

Though some old men can be pretty alarming out of theirs

It turns out that I have a hefty brass bedwarmer. Should be more effective against miscreants than a hot water bottle. Or the microwaveable wheat bag I got at the weekend after the aforementioned sprung a leak. And, now that I'm armed, I'll take the other reasonably sensible-looking option: sneaking downstairs. Familiarity with the stairs enables me to avoid all the squeaky ones that failed to get my attention when the Guildstaff-thief trod on them on his way up, and as I get near enough to my study to make out the conversation going on in there, I ascertain that there are at least three intruders, and one of them knows enough magic to counteract whatever traps and wards I might have placed on my stuff. But not enough to realise that the Guildstaff is useless without my specialised knowledge.

One of the thieves comes out into the hall. He hasn't noticed me yet, and the choices open to me reveal a couple of things about the workings of the adventure. Firstly, I was right about being able to take multiple helpings of some herbs and none of others - otherwise, I'd be asked if I wanted to use my Green Gallowbrush, rather than if I have some and want to use it. Secondly, there's a significant problem with the way spell use works. The rules stated that there's an Endurance cost for casting spells, and that it's possible to die if I cast one that costs more Endurance than I have. They don't list Endurance costs, though, and nor does the option to cast a spell here. So despite being enough of a veteran magic user that I know every spell in the book (well, I didn't need to make a selection from a list like the late lamented Banedon), I'm not sufficiently familiar with their effect on the caster to be able to tell whether or not I'm in a fit state to caste a given spell until I use it and either succeed or drop dead. Okay, so right now, at maximum Endurance, I shouldn't be in any danger, but I doubt that I'll remain at full health for long.

Still, that's something to bear in mind later on. For now, I have a bedwarmer to swing. The satisfying 'CLONG!' it makes as it thuds into the thief's head does attract his associates' attention, so I burst into the study. Thug II moves to intercept me while the magic-user searches in vain for the Guildstaff's 'on' switch. After one round of combat,during which I take a minor wound, the MU switches to plan B: giving the Guildstaff to the thug, and running interference while the thug leaps out of a window and runs off to give the staff to his boss. Not such an idiot after all.

My new opponent brandishes a black crystal rod with a glowing red tip. Defensive magic will cost Endurance, but attempting to physically disarm him is liable to cost more. Ah. My chances of success will be doubled if I take that Red Brushwort, but given that I've already failed two Magnamund-based adventures as a result of catastrophic rolls, I suspect that going for the modifier won't make any actual difference to the outcome... And it's a resounding success even without the herbal enhancement. The bolt of fire he flings at me dissipates, and the crystal rod shatters.

Remarkably unperturbed, the MU starts to cast a new spell. It's one that I recognise, which should be known only to fellow members of the Brotherhood of the Crystal Star. Which shocks character-me a lot more than reader-me, because Loi-Kymar doesn't yet know that the principal villain in this book is a former member of the Brotherhood.

Since I know this spell, I should have a reasonable idea of whether or not it's remotely worth trying to hide behind the desk before the lightning bolt is fired. But has the writer taken that into account? Some gamebook writers are annoying enough to offer the chance to do something the character would realise to be idiotic. But this isn't one of those situations. The outcome is randomised, and while I do fail, the relevant paragraph indicates that that's because old age has made me less nimble than I used to be, so it's a plausible mistake for me to have made.

The sorcerer starts to prepare another spell. I grab a bottle of ink and throw it at him (the bedwarmer's weight is liable to make it a lousy missile weapon). The magical defence he uses is misjudged, causing the bottle to explode and giving him a faceful of ink and broken glass. Before he can recover, I grab the bedwarmer (which has apparently been changed into a bedpan by some residual magical weirdness (unless the author just goofed)) and leap to the attack, getting in a hefty blow while he's still reeling. He can still fight back - just - after that, but only inflicts a minor wound before I finish him off.

I down a healing dose of Laumspur and make for the window. The ruffian with my staff is too far away for me to be certain of hitting him with a spell, so I grab a robe and the other thug's dagger and give chase. While I'm in pretty good condition for my age, he's younger and healthier, and I soon realise that I'm not going to catch up with him, so I pretend to give up, hoping that he'll then slow down and I'll be able to shadow him. This works, and I find out where he's heading. Disconcertingly, it's the home of my daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren.

Downing another Laumspur, I decide to stick with stealth. If my family are being held hostage, I need to dispose of the villains without attracting attention, and if one of them's gone rogue, I need to find out which one I should be crossing off my Fehmarn card list. Sneaking round to the back of the house, I find a herb garden and help myself to some more Laumspur and a dose of the night vision-enhancing Sharpeye - if the adventure's offering me a second chance to acquire the latter, that probably means I need some.

There are two doors at the back of the house. The kitchen door is open, letting out some light and the voices of strangers. Making a stealthy entrance there won't be easy. The other door leads to my son-in-law's workshop, which appears unoccupied. Workshops can contain a lot of weaponisable stuff. You know, if I were playing Lone Wolf in this adventure, the title ought to be Kai Hard.

The workshop door is barred on the other side. I could magically dislodge the bar, but it would make a noise falling on the floor. Can I check out the kitchen without attracting attention? Yes, I can. A further two thugs are cooking up a meal with the contents of my daughter's pantry, and currently arguing about what seasoning to use. Are Magnamund's equivalents of Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay working for the villain?

One of the herbs I chose not to bother with is a very effective emetic, which could have been fun to use here. As it is, I'll have to resort to magic if I'm going to deal with the thugs in a manner that doesn't alert their associates. And the author doesn't really get the concept of stealth (or the difference between 'its' and 'it's', for that matter), as the text has me telekinetically hurling scalding hot stew in the men's faces, and clobbering them with a rolling pin while they're too busy screaming in agony to defend themselves.

Far from surprisingly, I hear someone approaching to investigate the noise. Still, his words to a partner-in-crime indicate that he thinks Jamie and Gordon might just be messing about. I guess he's seen how worked up they can get when debating the relative merits of oregano and coriander. Hurriedly I levitate out of the way, cancelling the spell just as he catches sight of the unconscious rogue chefs, so I come crashing down onto him. This knocks him out, but attracts the attention of his confederate (bizarrely, I am surprised that he was not alone, despite having just heard him talking to someone else). There isn't time to cast another spell, so I lunge at the other guy, hoping to silence him before he can raise the alarm. Somehow there is time to ingest some Alether as I charge across the living room, and this gives me enough of an edge that I can shut him up in the nick of time.

Downstairs contains nothing but unconscious or dead mooks. I head up to the next floor, and a voice greets me from behind my daughter and her husband's bedroom door. The speaker reveals that he can sense me, so all that trying not to attract too much attention turns out to have been futile. I realise that my enemy is Vonotar the Traitor. The only member of the Brotherhood known to have turned to evil, principal bad guy in the full-length adventure which this accompanies, and oh yes, he's mentioned in the title of the mini-adventure, so frankly his identity is less of a surprise than that of the villain in some episodes of Scooby-Doo.

Vonotar wants to talk with me. First I check my grandchildren's room, to get a better idea of the hostage situation. As I move towards the door, it opens, revealing the suddenly surprised face of the rogue who brought my staff here. Looks like he was planning on attacking me from behind as I confronted Vonotar, and wasn't expecting to find himself face-to-face with me. Before he can get over his surprise, I use magic to hurl him backwards. He hits the window and, moments later, the ground below. Ha!

Vonotar hears the thud, and tells me that if I don't come into the room where he is, he'll set fire to the children. Preemptively taking a shot of Red Brushwort, I go through the door. My son-in-law and grandchildren are all bound and gagged, and Vonotar is using my daughter as a human shield, holding a dagger at her throat. I pretend to surrender, and have to drop my weapons in order to get him to lower his guard, but one brief tussle later, I'm between him and my daughter.

He draws a wand from his robes and begins to charge it with sorcerous energies. Apparently I could try to disarm him if I had a Shoe, but that's one item I failed to acquire, so I think attempting to magically counteract what he's doing looks the smartest option. And the bonus from having taken that Brushwort takes me over the dividing line between failure and success. Phew!

With his wand now useless, Vonotar switches tactics and casts a spell that plunges the room into darkness. I said I'd need that Sharpeye. By the time it kicks in, he's already cast another spell, so my enhanced vision shows me two Vonotars, one advancing on me, the other going for my family. The Brushwort in my system enables me to see through the illusion, though, and my response puts Vonotar on the defensive. So he turns nasty, and sorcerously compels my daughter to threaten herself with a dagger. I wind up having to surrender, and Vonotar orders me to use the Guildstaff to transport him, his hostage, and myself to the Ice Barbarian fortress of Ikaya. I partially obey, but have sufficient mastery of the spell that I can leave my daughter behind, so at least my loved ones will be safe.

Vonotar and I arrive in a throne room, surrounded by Ice Barbarians. He starts to address them in their own tongue, and I hit him hard with the Guildstaff. The Barbarians overpower me, and Vonotar gloats about having got what he wanted, but I'm not too upset. My daughter knows where we went, and can inform the Brotherhood, so they can take action against Vonotar. And the resistance I've put up is enough to discourage him from trying to extract the secrets of the Guildstaff from me. All I have to do is wait... and hope that Lone Wolf doesn't louse things up when he plays his side of the related adventure.

Not a bad mini-adventure, that one. Rewards intelligent decisions, and does a reasonable job of making the ending look like a success even though it does entail my being taken prisoner so this can properly tie in with the main feature. Provided the LW adventure in the book hasn't been appallingly Lucasised, this is on track to be the first reissue that actually improves on the original.

Friday, 8 February 2013

That's Not Even a Proper Word

Apologies for the longer-than-intended gap between posts. I'm going back to books with a wintry feel for a bit longer, and today I shall be starting on J.H. Brennan's Sagas of the Demonspawn, a series best known for being a) significantly less humorous in tone than Brennan's other gamebooks and b) a lot more complicated than it needs to be.

I acquired the series out of sequence, and remember nothing of how I got hold of the first book, Fire*Wolf (the '*' is not silent, but the only indication of how it should be pronounced is the description of it as a guttural). A price has been stamped on the book in the way the second-hand bookstall at Swansea market marked its wares (for all I know, still does, if it still exists), but there's also a price pencilled in at the top of the Quest Journal in the style of many charity or second-hand shops, so I can't say much more than that I probably got it in Swansea. As I recall, I attempted it once after completing the collection, and died in or shortly after the first serious fight.

The book starts with an explanation of what RPGs and gamebooks (or, to use Brennan's preferred term, 'participation novels') are, plus a plug for the RPGs Brennan had published the year before, and then comes the first challenge: character creation. There's the odd bit of dry wit in there - describing death as 'usually a bit of a nuisance' in the real world, and noting that the first five characteristics all relate to 'the popular human occupation of fighting' - but it essentially boils down to repeatedly rolling two dice and multiplying the results by eight to generate percentages (not that percentile dice are ever required when playing the books). Fire*Wolf's starting Life (these books are third person narrative) is equal to the sum of all the randomly generated stats (plus Skill, which is this game's term for Experience Points). Clear?

Even if it isn't, I'm the only person who has to worry about this. And it tells me that Fire*Wolf starts out like this:
Strength 80
Speed 24
Stamina 56
Courage 80
Skill 0
Luck 56
Charm 80
Attraction 48
Life 424
Slightly above average, then, but that low Speed could prove his undoing.

A brief prologue tells that astrologers have been predicting the return of the Demonspawn, and this has been causing consternation and ruckus among the people of the Realm. There's no real danger until summer, when the snow in the mountain passes will thaw for a few weeks, but that fact hasn't prevented panic, rioting, evacuations and general brouhaha. Spring brought a new, more positive prediction from the astrologers: the appearance of a new Messiah...

Fire*Wolf is a member of a Barbarian tribe, exiled after being caught in flagrante with the Chief's daughter. Weakened by lack of food and water, he is rescued by a hermit who calls himself Baldar. Baldar deduces from certain of Fire*Wolf's physical traits (and his demonstrating a modicum of self-control when called 'ignorant') that Fire*Wolf is not actually of Barbarian stock. Over the course of the next few days, Baldar starts to teach his guest survival skills, and when Fire*Wolf shows signs of overconfidence, Baldar instigates a non-lethal fight to teach him a lesson.

Combat is a barrel of laughs. Initiative is determined by a dice roll, modified with Speed, Courage and Luck. Once it's been established who gets to strike first, their attack is determined by a dice roll, modified with Skill and Luck. If the blow hits, damage is derived from the number rolled for the attack by means of subtraction, multiplication, and the addition of an eighth of the attacker's Strength (plus any weapon bonuses). Damage is subtracted from the opponent's Life (minus any armour bonuses), and if the opponent isn't dead, the opponent gets to hit back. And so on until one combatant is dead or the player loses the will to play on (except that every so often, Fire*Wolf has to miss an attack owing to fatigue). I've spent a chunk of today messing around in Visual Basic to get the computer to handle the faff, so battle should be less disheartening.

To Fire*Wolf's surprise (though probably not that of any reader), Baldar turns out to be a pretty capable opponent, who only takes a little damage in the course of incapacitating him. Baldar then invokes a Barbarian custom: the loser of the fight must grant a favour to the victor. He explains that he has a daughter named Yalena in the town of Belgardium, and has recently divined that she is in danger, and can only be saved if someone takes her to a place named Kraal. The favour he requests is that Fire*Wolf go to Belgardium, find Yalena, find out where Kraal is, and take her there.

Fire*Wolf has the option of refusing, but I'm pretty sure that that will prove fatal even more quickly than accepting. Not that he has much chance of survival anyway - though his options might not be as bad as I thought, because a cursory look through the book suggests that I may have misunderstood part of the rules (if something that isn't stated at all can be considered part of the rules).

The thing is, the rules don't actually say how healing occurs. They state that it can happen, and that it can never raise Life above the total of all the other stats, and that's it. Previously, I interpreted the set-up as being like it is in most gamebooks with health management: after a fight, the stat determining how fit you are remains at the level it was at the end of the fight until something is done to restore it (consumption of a meal or potion, in-text instructions to add points, use of special healing powers etc.). But what if it's like The Cretan Chronicles, in which you automatically return to full health after any fight you survive? The only references to healing I've seen within the adventure itself relate to restoration of Life during battle. And there's a quirky option whereby, if Fire*Wolf gets killed in combat, rolling under an eighth of his Luck on two dice allows him to restart the fight, restoring his opponent and himself to full Life. No mention of what his Life was at the start of the fight, which could be taken as indicating that he's always supposed to start a fight at full Life. Come to think of it, I don't recall having seen any sections that inflict loss of Life outside of combat, either. So I'm going to go with my new interpretation. If, in the course of play, I do encounter something that disproves it, so be it. But the alternative is going into the book's first 'to the death' fight in so enfeebled a condition that a single successful blow would kill Fire*Wolf, which seems a bit ridiculous. All the more so when death carries a 5 in 12 chance of being able to restart the fight at full health.

Anyway, Fire*Wolf sets off on his quest, and after four days' travel (during which time some healing should have taken place), randomness occurs. This turns out to be an attack by a constrictor lizard. Fire*Wolf wins the fight, but his wounds become infected, he becomes feverish, and this allows an unknown assailant to knock him out.

Fire*Wolf comes round to find himself bound hand and foot, having been captured by slavers. He gets a little more freedom when the slaver caravan makes camp for the night, but his hands remain tied together. Nevertheless, he decides to take action when a slaver named Baj attempts to force himself upon a teenaged female slave. A flying drop-kick get's Baj's attention, and a hefty boot to the groin convinces him to change his plans for the night. Other slavers give Fire*Wolf a flogging as punishment, but take care not to permanently damage the merchandise.

The slavers also leave Fire*Wolf's hands untied, assuming that he's been too weakened to cause any more trouble. This makes it easier for the mother of Jara, the teenager he saved, to reward him with a magical stone that provides limited healing during battle. And for Jara to express her gratitude by giving Fire*Wolf 'that comfort which I denied the slaver.' The section does not go into graphic detail about the rest of the night's activities, which is probably a good thing: while this series was released under the Fontana label rather than Armada (the publishers' juvenile range, which included Brennan's Grail Quest), the books still tended to wind up in the children's section at bookshops, and with gamebooks coming under fire from 'concerned parents' anyway, explicit sexual content would only have fuelled the fire.

For a couple of days, Fire*Wolf feigns being weak from the flogging. Then the caravan reaches a narrow path, with a valley wall on one side and a steep decline on the other, so everyone has to go single file. When the path comes closest to the valley floor, Fire*Wolf pretends to collapse. The slaver who comes to investigate is Baj, and Fire*Wolf throttles him before any other slavers can work their way along the path to intervene.

Fire*Wolf then flees into the valley. None of the other slavers give chase. He finds this a little odd, as he knows from overheard chit-chat that fighting slaves are currently fetching very good prices, but doesn't dwell on the issue. Silly Barbarian!

Much of the valley floor is swampland, and as Fire*Wolf wades in the direction of a building he glimpsed from the path, he becomes aware that it's quiet... too quiet. Becoming aware that something is heading towards him, he arms himself with a length of wood, which may prove insufficient against the 15ft-long reptile  that emerges from the mist. Still, in these conditions, running away is unlikely to help much, so Fire*Wolf strikes at the creature, and fails to hit it. A couple more similarly unsuccessful blows lead to the realisation that the reptile is much smaller, but can create illusions. This makes the illusion lizard's stats partly random, and the information given implies that I should have been applying the fatigue rules to opponents as well as to Fire*Wolf. So why did the rules state 'this applies to your opponent as well as you' with regard to two other aspects of combat, but not this one?

Based on what sense I can make of the set-up, Fire*Wolf wins the fight. The rules governing gaining Skill become that bit more confusing, but explaining why would take at least half a dozen more lines of text than I can be bothered to write on the issue. Fire*Wolf is also confused, but because of the illusions rather than the rules. He runs until he reaches the bank of a river, then hastily lashes together a raft. This takes him close to the building he noticed earlier, which turns out to be a derelict castle. Exploring it, he finds a strangely unrusted sword, which he picks up, and I think there's a mistake in the writing here, as there's no way of exceeding a number in the 16-96 range on just two dice. I shall assume that the number rolled is supposed to be multiplied by eight, like the rolls at character creation, which gives me a 5 in 12 chance of success, an equal chance of failure, and a 1 in 6 chance of frustration at Brennan's having overlooked the fact that 'equal to' is a possibility as well as 'more than' and 'less than'.

A nice low roll, so Fire*Wolf doesn't get his brain fried as a result of picking up Stor Doombringer, which is to be his signature weapon from now on. It can talk to him, he cannot lose it, and in battle it absorbs some of his Life every time he strikes with it, but on a successful blow it also absorbs Life from the opponent and feeds it back into is wielder, just to add another wrinkle to combat. None too impressed at its quasi-vampiric nature, he tries to discard it, but it returns to his hand. He attempts to shatter the blade against a wall, and a burst of magical energy transports him away.

The next thing he knows, he is locked in a cell elsewhere in the castle. There are three levers set into the wall by the door, and the cell also contains an ancient bronze statue of some monstrous deity, standing on a pedestal which bears an inscription in an ancient runic script he doesn't know. I've done a fair bit of codebreaking in gamebooks (see, for example, the last paragraph of this plus the second paragraph of the following post), but this is going to be tricky. For starters, two characters in the inscription are faded to illegibility. Then there's the fact that spacing is uncertain, which is going to make identifying words that bit tougher. It's also difficult to tell whether certain similar-looking characters are supposed to be the same, but have minor variations like the ones you get in handwriting, or if the little differences indicate that they're different letters.

Still, I should give it a try rather than just randomly pulling levers, in case this is like the trap with a similar set-up in Brennan's first Grail Quest book. I think I can identify sixteen different characters, so I'm going to assign a numerical value to each one and copy out the inscription in number format - pattern recognition should be easier with a load of recognisable symbols than with unfamiliar squiggles...

And after more effort than can be implied by the paragraph break, I have to concede defeat. Random lever-pulling it is, then. And, annoyingly, the book gives all seven possible combinations of lever up-or-downness as options, despite the fact that a) they must already be in one of them (most likely all up or all down) and b) there are actually eight possible combinations, of which 'down/up/up' has been omitted for no sensible reason (the book has 183 numbered sections, so it's not as if adding one for the eighth combination would have spoiled a nice round number).

Anyway, Fire*Wolf has two hands, so provided each lever can be moved one-handed, it should be possible to reach any not-all-the-same variant in one move. If they're all up, he pushes down the levers on the left and right. If they're all down, he pulls up the middle one. Either way, the end setting is the same. And I'm choosing that one first because a) it amuses me that the acronym for that set-up reads 'DUD' and b) that combination leads to the same section number as the way out of the similarish room in Grail Quest 1.

Well, that was informative. It transpires that the levers started in an in-between position (so why were there no options for leaving one or two of them neither up nor down?). And that Mr. Brennan may harbour some animosity against metagamers, as the 'escape from the room' section from The Castle of Darkness corresponds to the 'Fire*Wolf falls into a spiked pit and dies' section in Fire*Wolf.

I'm hoping to get back to the Monday-Wednesday-Friday pattern of posting here now that life has stopped being quite so cluttered.