Monday, 29 April 2013

Lie Still, Little Bottle

Issue 6 of Proteus contained Elizabeth C. Caldwell's second adventure, The Fortress of Kruglach. It has the minor distinction of going on to be the first back issue to sell out (issue 1 never having been advertised as a back issue), and demand for copies was high enough that the adventure was actually republished in issue 15 alongside the rather atrocious main adventure and the Christmas special.

As usual, I got my copy on a schoolday. I don't remember much about that day, beyond being in or on the landing outside the school library when I reached the section with the throne. I'm pretty sure I failed my first attempt on account of missing at least one vital item, and I vaguely recall trying to solve one of the puzzles and failing owing to a The Omen-inspired assumption that the 'evil number' referred to in the text was 666. The adventure would have had to be over a thousand sections longer than it actually is to contain a section with a number corresponding to the answer I got.

The eponymous fortress is situated on the other side of the regrettably-named forest of Regnad from the village of Arn Gate. Centuries ago it was the home of the evil Sorcerer Kruglach, who would blight, abduct and otherwise make life miserable for the villagers, but then the unpleasantness stopped for no readily apparent reason. More recently it has started up again, leading the villagers to conclude that whatever happened to Kruglach all that time back has now unhappened, and they're offering a reward to the adventurer who manages to make it rehappen, preferably on a more permanent basis. Enter my new character, who has:
Dexterity 11
Strength 20
Fate/Fortune 8
Decent enough, but it'll take more than just good stats to beat Kruglach.

On my way through the forest, which is quiet, too quiet, I get so nervous that only my determination not to break my word keeps me from abandoning the quest. Then I come across a wooden hut with a strangely cold fire outside it, and a human skull next to the fire just to give the place that bit more ambience. Lightning and thunder precede the arrival of a strange creature which declares itself to be from another dimension and time, and claims to have been known as Raaka Dihar. I don't know if the name's supposed to mean anything to me (or my character, for that matter), but it merely evokes vague memories of Rok da House (which didn't chart until some time after Kruglach was first published, so there's probably no connection).

Raaka Dihar explains that it was he who bottled Kruglach's soul several centuries ago, and he's not happy that some stupid mortal went and opened the bottle (one of the ways of dying in Ms. Caldwell's previous adventure is to release something monstrous that's been trapped inside a bottle, though that's probably a completely different bottled evil to Kruglach). As it was a mortal that freed Kruglach, it has to be a mortal that traps him again, so Raaka Dihar teaches me the Spell of Soul Capture, and tells me of the three items I'll need in order to cast it, and the two protective talismans I'll require to ensure that it doesn't backfire on me. Let the item-hunt begin...

The fortress is surrounded by a moat, which shows signs of being occupied even though the water is stagnant. A rotting drawbridge is the only way across, and I cross with great care, narrowly succeeding at the Fate/Fortune roll to keep from falling off. To help bulk section numbers up to 200, it takes three sections to open and step through the door at the end of the drawbridge.

I enter a courtyard, noticing two look-out towers, a well, and a door into the main body of the fortress. I know from past attempts at the adventure that it's almost closing time in the south-west tower, so I head there first. There's another non-essential section split here, but this one is more acceptable, as the division of the passage creates and then defuses a little tension: as I start up the stairs, I hear a strange rumbling noise... which turns out to be the snoring of a Goblin Guard who's failing in his duty as a look-out.

Gently poking him in the ribs with the tip of my sword to wake him up, I let him know that the next prod will be a good deal more forceful unless he can give me some hints about where I might find one of the spell components (since Kruglach, evidently never having read the Evil Overlord List, has everything I need in stock here). The list of things I need includes 'the Eye of a Sorcerer' (and evidently neither of the ones in Kruglach's head will do), and the Goblin tells me of an Amulet known as the Eye of the Sorcerer, which he believes to be hidden in the library. It seems odd that something named after what I require would actually be a viable substitute, but in this case it will work. Mind you, if I were to decide that my sword needed a name, and try calling it 'Two Teeth From a Cyclops', it would prove an inadequate substitute for the pair of Cyclops-teeth that the spell requires.

Apropos of nothing, the Goblin also tells me about the 'evil number', which is some 653 lower than my original estimate. I then have the choice of running him through or letting him take me on in a fair fight. Out of curiosity I once checked the penalty for murdering him in cold blood, which turned out to be nothing at all. Nevertheless, my Dexterity is high enough that I can take the less dishonourable option without too much risk of coming to harm, even bearing in mind the fact that Proteus Goblins are much better fighters than your average gamebook Goblin. Well, he wounds me once, but that's a small price to pay for not compromising my ethics.

Hearing other Goblins approaching, and realising from their dialogue that they're about to seal off the entrance to this tower, I race downstairs and roll through the doorway just before a heavy portcullis seals it off. Slightly disappointingly, this all happens within one section: breaking it up would have added a little tension (all the more so if there'd also been a roll to avoid being trapped or injured), and would have been a better way of achieving the target section count than some of the padding that is used. Talking of which, if I now wanted to check out the other tower, I would turn to 23.

However, I know that it's better to investigate the well first. It's a bit slimy and fungus-infested, but I climb down the rope anyway. No, actually I climb down my own rope, which hasn't been mentioned before. Considering the condition of this place, that's liable to be a good deal safer, but a brief starting inventory somewhere in the rules or the 'Your Quest Begins' section would have been handy.

Another just-successful Fate/Fortune roll gets me to the bottom of the well without incident. Beyond the fact that between the shallow water and the solid ground is about a foot of mud and rotting vegetation, into which I sink as soon as I let go of the rope. This dislodges a bottle that was buried in the muck, causing it to surface. I'm not going to deliberately fail this adventure just for the sake of an awkward 'Wash & Go' ad parody, so I grab the bottle, noting the slab of the magical metal Rubidium that's attached to it, and attempt to climb back out. And succeed without needing to make a roll, even though the text states that the rope is now more slippery, and not so easy to climb.

Now I turn my attention to the tower in the south-east, at section 43. Ascending the stairs, I reach a room containing a casket with an inscription on its lid: 'In memory of Arcturus, star of the North, winged horse of the Gods'. One of the talismans I require is a feather from the wing of a flying horse, so this looks worthy of further investigation. The casket is sealed, but there is a square of Rubidium set into the front, with an indentation that the slab attached to the bottle would fit. I slot in the slab, the Rubidium glows, and the casket opens to reveal the feather I need.

There's a door leading out of the room. Opening it triggers a trap that costs me a couple of Strength, which is a little tiresome. After that I return to the courtyard.

Incidentally, section 23 would have had me reach the same room and find the same casket. But as that was for entering the tower before going down the well, obviously anyone reading that section (and the ones to which it leads, which are not the same as the ones to which 43 leads) wouldn't have the Rubidium slab. Even so, the sections following on from 23 still ask if you have the Rubidium, and allow you to use it to open the box if you lie and say that you do. So why have two separate yet functionally identical sets of sections covering the exploration of this tower? Presumably because the redundant ones increase the number of sections by 10. I can think of better ways of padding the section count.

The door out of the courtyard leads into a torchlit corridor that ends in a T-junction. Going the wrong way probably means missing something essential, but I don't recall the correct route off hand. I try going east, and the passage soon turns north. Beyond an ornately carved door I find a long-abandoned banqueting hall. There's a long table with sixteen chairs beside it, and at the head, a throne, flanked by a statue of something hideous and a statue of a Unicorn. The second talisman is a Unicorn's horn, so the latter statue catches my attention.

Taking a closer look, I get the impression that it's looking back at me. No obvious indication of how to acquire the horn, so I turn my attention to the throne. There are two buttons set into one of the armrests. I press the one that's the same colour as the unicorn, and a hidden compartment in the table springs open to reveal a parchment. This explains that to get the Unicorn's horn I must touch the right part of the statue (and something bad will happen to me if I touch the wrong one). Three pairs of statements follow, each consisting of one falsehood and one fact, and the application of a little logic enables me to pick the correct part. The statue disintegrates, leaving only the horn intact, so I take that and move on.

Doors lead west and north. Maybe there are useful items on both paths from the junction. I head west just in case, and reach a door with the letter 'L' engraved on it. 'L' for 'Library'? Yes, but not a very good one: it only contains three books, entitled Acid, Charms and The Eye of the Sorcerer. The decisions open to me are a little ill-thought-out, ignoring the possibility that I might have decided not to question the Goblin, or to ask a question other than the one I did ask - there's an 'if you have not met the Goblin' option, but apart from that there's only acting on what he said about a spell component or distrusting his words.

Funnily enough, while the Goblin was telling the truth, I'm better off being wary, as that allows me to check the other books first. Well, one of them, the other being a rather unsubtle trap. When I open the one that's safe to touch, mist rises from its pages and forms into the shape of Raaka Dihar, who tells me the mathematical formula for working out Kruglach's number. If I can figure it out (which I need to know the 'evil number' to do) I can learn an incantation of potential use in the confrontation with Kruglach. This is really basic maths - addition followed by multiplication - so I have no difficulty getting the number, and the word 'Megoboneend' appears on the page for long enough to make me wonder what Ms. Caldwell was thinking when she wrote this bit.

That done, I get down The Eye of the Sorcerer, which has been hollowed out and used as a receptacle for the Eye of the Sorcerer. Not exactly a subtle hiding place, is it? No sooner have I found the amulet than I am forced to leave the library, and as I'm not allowed to retrace my footsteps, the north door is the only option.

A short corridor takes me north, then east to another door, which leads into a kitchen. A large Ogre is hacking at a carcass with a cleaver, but decides that he'd be better off using the cleaver on me. Despite having a lower Dexterity than the Goblin, he manages to wound me three times before I fell him. He carries some money and a selection of herbs, including wolfsbane (as well as garlic, but as I need some Werewolf hairs for the spell, and don't require anything Vampire-related, I think the wolfsbane will be more useful).

On a shelf is a cage containing two white rabbits, and labelled, 'Tomorrow's Dinner'. The likelihood of encountering a Monty Python and the Holy Grail in-joke here is low enough that I risk releasing the rabbits, and thus discover that the paper lining the bottom of the cage has a poem on it regarding the use of silver and wolfsbane to kill werewolves. Guess what metal the coins I took from the Ogre were...

The door east leads into a store room, its contents way past their prime. I search among the mouldy sacks of grain and heaps of rotting rope and cloth, and attract the attention of a formidable-looking Thundergrunt. It does me as much harm as my previous two opponents combined, but I prevail, resume my search, and find a coil of golden rope concealed amidst the junk.

I also discover a trapdoor and, opening it, see steps leading down to a lower level, so I descend. It ends in a north-south tunnel, and I suspect that this is the point at which picking the wrong direction will doom me. The default direction of travel in gamebooks is usually north, so south may be a brief detour to acquire something essential. But south leads back under the rooms I've been through, so I might be close to the northernmost extremity of the fortress and Kruglach somewhere at its heart, in which case the crucial detour would be north.

North I go. The passage turns west and ends at a door, and I have the option of turning back and going south, which suggests that I've made the right decision. Behind the door is another passage leading south, but  iron bars have been used to turn the west side of the passage into three cages. The middle one is occupied by a sleeping man, and a bunch of keys hangs on the eastern wall of the passage.

I unlock the cage and sneak in (it was either that or ignore the prisoner altogether). Another Fate/Fortune roll is just successful, so I don't wake the man, and thus get to choose between killing him in his sleep (I'm starting to get a little concerned about the domestic arrangements in Ms. Caldwell's life back when she wrote this) or waking and questioning him.

He introduces himself as Teel, an adventurer who was captured by Goblins some months ago, and asks if he can accompany me out of the fortress. One of the ways of getting killed in the previous Proteus was a consequence of trusting a fellow adventurer who turned out not to be what he seemed, so anyone familiar with Caverns of the Enchantress might be suspicious of Teel. Or they might assume that Ms. Caldwell wouldn't try the same trick two adventures running. Actually, Teel isn't just another adventurer. But not letting him come with me would have disastrous consequences. So that's kind of a twist.

Teel would be a lousy poker player: his reaction when I say he can come along makes me suspicious. We head south, and go through a door into a laboratory straight out of a Hammer Frankenstein movie. Green liquid bubbles away in a complex set-up, there's a large table with a glass helmet attached to electrodes on top of it, and a couple of books are on a shelf by the table. I would like to stress that what happens next is an authorial imposition rather than any choice of my own: I invite Teel to become an experimental subject, encouraging him with a prod of my sword. He reacts badly to this.

Very badly, in fact.

Luckily for me, I have some of what I picked up in the kitchen - and I'm not talking marjoram and thyme, here. I fling the silver and wolfsbane into his face, and he drops dead on the spot. After extracting the required number of hairs from his tail, I decide against trying on that helmet, but take a look at the books. One is full of incomprehensible formulae and jargon. The other is misleadingly entitled Make Your Own Monster - rather than explaining how to emulate Doctor Moreau or you-know-who, it's actually a detailed bestiary for the world, which mentions that it is possible to subdue a Cyclops by looping a golden rope around its neck.

Apart from the two doors in the north wall, there are exits to the east and south. I try east first, entering a passage which soon turns south and ends at a rusty iron door. There's a sliding plate set into the door, and on the wall a key hangs from a hook. I open the panel, and catch sight of a Cyclops. Readying the rope, and wishing I could call on Wonder Woman for assistance, I unlock the door. Throwing the lasso involves a Dexterity roll, which makes sense, and is also a good deal easier than another Fate/Fortune roll would be. But what I roll would be a success either way. The rope settles neatly around the Cyclops' neck, and the beast sits down, not even flinching when I pull out a couple of its teeth.

The passage leading south from the Cyclops' cave eventually ends at an ominous-looking black door, which I suspect leads to Kruglach. As I have everything I need, I decide to open it (not that I'd have any alternative if I were missing anything essential). The door is cold and frictionless, and slowly disappears when I touch it. Beyond is another cave, illuminated by flaming pedestals, and occupied by a tall man in black silk robes, whose eyes look like the substance of which the last door was made. He doesn't seem to do much while I extract the spell components, the bottle and the talismans from my pack, so I am able to cast the spell without hindrance. Things get chaotic for a bit, but when they quieten down, Kruglach's body lies on the floor, and his soul fumes away in the bottle. I decide that my next quest should be finding somewhere distinctly inaccessible to hide the bottle from his minions.

That was a bit anticlimactic. Considering the number of superfluous section breaks in the adventure (I stopped mentioning them after my rant about the duplicate tower sections, but there were plenty more of them), it wouldn't have been hard to free up some paragraphs for a little interaction with the villain, maybe some kind of effort by Kruglach to prevent the casting of the spell. It needn't have been particularly challenging (I like the way it's possible to win without fighting anything that has a Dexterity above 9, giving even sub-par characters at least a chance of making it through to victory), but one final obstacle to overcome would have made for a better climax.

And for all its flaws, this is still vastly superior to the 'serious' adventure alongside which it was reprinted. But that's a rant for another blog post.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Don't Allow One Touch

I owned the second half of J.H. Brennan's Sagas of the Demonspawn long before I acquired the first two books. During one winter sale at Chiesmans (earlier than the one in which I got my first Tunnels & Trolls adventures, as the book department was still on the top floor), they had several reduced gamebooks, including the last two SotD titles. Those weren't the only gamebooks I bought in that sale, but I'll name the others when I get around to playing them.

Anyway, my first experience of playing Fire*Wolf was book 3, Demondoom. Though I didn't so much 'play' as 'read, ignoring the rules'. Despite the odd incidental fatality I eventually made it to the climax, but couldn't complete the adventure, even after referring to the ylgninnuc dedocne Hints Page provided for readers who struggled with this 'most difficult of the first three adventures'. Not even explicit instructions on what to do with the items (or was it information?) gathered during the adventure can help a reader who's found a viable route to the endgame that bypasses all the item/data-gathering sequences. Frankly, I'm amazed that I retained the SotD books I had during the period in the 1990s when I got rid of a lot of my gamebooks, let alone bothering to complete the series.

Still, I have them, and I chose to play them for the blog, so I might as well get on with it. When this book starts, Fire*Wolf has a relatively comfortable life. A decade has passed since the events of the first two adventures, and it's been pretty peaceful thanks to Fire*Wolf's having awakened King Voltar the Magnificent from a centuries-long mystical sleep: Voltar is a sufficiently powerful sorcerer to have kept the Demonspawn from troubling his subjects these past ten years. But now there are signs of new trouble - five prominent members of Harn's Ruling Houses have disappeared in mysterious circumstances during the past few months. Also, there's a new gamebook in the series, and there's not much chance of its being 250 sections of 'everything's going fine, Fire*Wolf is prosperous and contented, roll against his Luck to see if he manages to get home from work before it starts to rain'.

Right now, Fire*Wolf isn't particularly concerned about the disappearances, his thoughts currently preoccupied with his impending marriage to the Lady Freya. And how does the groom-to-be look?
Strength 32
Speed 24
Stamina 40
Courage 24
Skill 10
Luck 48
Charm 56
Attraction 40
Life 274
Woefully below-average - clearly the easy life has taken its toll. Not that my chances of success would be remotely higher if he had decent stats, but those low scores do increase the likelihood that if there's a scroll bar to the side of this blog post when you read it, it's close to the bottom even as you read this paragraph.

So, Fire*Wolf is on his way home from a banquet at his prospective father-in-law's place. The formal paternal blessing on the imminent nuptials has been bestowed, and Fire*Wolf is eagerly anticipating getting to consummate the marriage. Which may be why he doesn't notice the Assassin before the ambush takes place.

One benefit of being unable to get rid of a cursed sword is that you're certain to have a weapon handy even when ambling home from a banquet. Fire*Wolf isn't completely without hope in this fight, though the Assassin's 5 in 36 chance of striking a lethal blow with his poisoned dagger each round does enhance the threat he poses. Oh, and whereas in previous adventures an opponent's Life Points equalled the total of his/her/its other attributes, this is not the case here (or someone got their maths wrong). As this makes the Assassin easier to kill (in theory, at least), I'm willing to overlook the discrepancy.

The Assassin's Skill is high enough that he only needs to get above 0 on two dice to hit. Third time round, the Assassin manages his only-on-a-double-six garotte attack, which halves Fire*Wolf's Life Points. That's actually less effective than his regular attack, doing almost 40 points less damage than he'd have inflicted with his dagger (though if Fire*Wolf had been a lot tougher to start with, and not already weakened by the first two rounds of combat, that could have been a much more devastating attack). In the fourth round the Assassin rolls what he needs to fatally poison his opponent. And with Fire*Wolf's sub-par Luck score, the 'get to redo the battle you just lost' option doesn't come into play, either.

The restart option contained within the book's 'you are dead' section is less surreal in its outworkings than the one in book 2, but in this instance it's quite amusing. If I wanted to try again so soon, I would have to roll two dice. If I got 5 or below, I'd have to go back to section 1. On 6 or above, I'd be able to pick up from the section I was on when Fire*Wolf died. Which is section 1. (That also means that any death resulting from a poor decision, such as a wrong answer in the 'Gnome of variable mass' puzzle I vaguely remember, must lead to a restart from section 1, because a roll high enough to allow restarting from later on would automatically take the reader to the 'that was a dumb thing to do: you die' section rather than the point at which they made the erroneous decision.)

I'd be interested to see how these books would come across if somebody were to change the system to something less cumbersome and more playable. There may be a decent saga in here, but it's not easy to get invested in the adventures of a character whose chances of survival are so poor. I imagine it would be even trickier for anyone who wasn't letting a computer handle most of the convolutions of the rules.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Got to Get In to Get Out

It was definitely a Friday when I got issue 9 of Warlock magazine. Apart from the usual fragmentary memories of playing the mini-adventure at my grandparents' house, I have physical evidence. The thing is, one of the readers' letters printed in that issue talks about colouring in the pictures in gamebooks (regarding this as a positive thing, however anathema such behaviour may be to your average gamebook collector). Among the things the grandparents kept at the house for the purposes of keeping visiting grandchildren entertained was a set of watercolours. Thus, seven of the illustrations accompanying Tom Williams' Fortress Throngard, the mini-adventure in that issue, have been crudely colourised by my 14-year-old self.

Back in 1986 I didn't think that much of Fortress Throngard, but I was a good deal more impressed after my last attempt. One of the adventure's quirks is that it uses subjective directions (left and right, mostly) rather than compass bearings. These made it easy for my paintbrush-wielding self to lose my bearings, to the extent that I failed my first attempt by reaching the humiliating 'you walk back into the cell from which you initially escaped, the villain gloats about having been toying with you, and you lose all hope' ending. For the more recent replay, I paid attention and kept notes, and as far as I could tell, there are no mistakes in the directions given in the text.

In this adventure I am squire to Sir Falfax the Fair, and following his abduction by the minions of the evil wizard Throngard, I have decided to rescue him. Being ill-equipped to storm Throngard's fortress, I decide to conceal a picklock and a knife about my person, then get myself captured. Once imprisoned in the fortress, I'll just have to break out, find Sir Falfax, free him, and break back out. Experience tells me that stats of
Skill 12
Stamina 21
Luck 12
are no guarantee of success, but they should help.

Throngard's victims are generally captured in the Forest of Ergon, so I go for a wander around there, carrying a stick so it won't be obvious that I want to get caught. A few thugs descend upon me and, after putting up token resistance, I allow them to overpower me and knock me out.

I come round chained to the walls in a dungeon. The picklock is accessible, so I'm able to free myself from the chains without too much bother. I then bide my time until I hear a key in the lock, at which point I hide behind the door, fatally surprising the guard who's bringing me mouldy bread and water.

Stepping out into the corridor, I head left, ignoring the door with the runic inscription, and the one with the peephole, which I remember leading to a cell with an occupant who has Stockholm Syndrome (or whatever you call the equivalent condition in a world with no Stockholm). The storeroom opposite is more useful, providing me with a bag and a rope. That's as far as it's wise to go in this direction at the moment, because the sounds of dogs emanate from behind the next door.

Retracing my steps, I now try the door opposite the cell from which I escaped. The guard stocking shelves in the room I find does well to injure me, considering that my Skill is twice his, but I land all the other blows struck in the fight. This being a provisions store, I then eat something to restore my Stamina to its Initial level, and cram the bag with as many portions of food as will fit into it. I also help myself to the guard's sword.

Back to the corridor, and left (because I'm now facing in the opposite direction, so the way I've already been is on my right). A couple more doors, both locked, but nothing my picklock can't handle. One leads to an armoury, where I find a magical breastplate of questionable utility: it halves all combat damage, but carries a significant Skill penalty, so I'm liable to be hit more often while wearing it.

The opposite door leads to a fairly luxurious cell. The occupant beckons me in, and I approach him. He introduces himself as Gandorn, who was once Throngard's tutor. When his pupil turned to evil, Gandorn opposed him, but was defeated. Still possessing some small degree of decency, Throngard chose to imprison him in relative comfort.

Gandorn explains that he knows of my quest, and says that I can free the prisoners, but not defeat Throngard (though I can temporarily immobilise him with the help of some Words of Command that Gandorn teaches me). He refuses to leave his cell because Throngard is partly his responsibility, but advises me to find the secrets in Throngard's library.

Continuing along the corridor, I reach another pair of doors. The one on the right has a grimy plaque next to it, and I take the time to wipe the plaque clean and see what it says. A wise decision, as it reads, 'Guards - Off Duty Room', and I think it unlikely that anyone in there is going to take his downtime so seriously as to ignore any escapees who poke their noses into the room.

I hurry away before anyone comes near the room I just avoided, ascending a flight of steps to an iron door, beyond which is another corridor. My previous attempt at this adventure failed because I went through the door opposite me too soon. For now I'll try going left. Before long I see another door, and I try this one. A Vampire Bat attacks me, but I kill it. The room beyond contains a mallet and stakes, which I can take because I have a bag (oddly, there were stakes in the storeroom where I got the bag, but I wasn't allowed to take them), and a chain which I could take even if I were bagless.

Emerging, I have no choice but to continue along the corridor. Soon I reach two more doors, and the sturdy iron one gets my attention. Behind it are steps leading down to a wine cellar. Now is not a good time to try drinking, so I don't loiter. The other door leads to a sulphur-smelling room which contains a dusty book on a table, and two statues of demons flank the fireplace, which seems to be the source of the smell. I risk looking at the book. It's a grimoire, containing details on the proper technique for killing Dragons with bow and arrow, the way to kill Vampires with mallet and stake, and the fact that warlocks' associates have moles on their bodies. The room becomes colder, freaking me out, and I rapidly depart.

For some reason I am forced to ignore the next door I pass. Reaching another pair of doors, one iron, one not, I note that careless design means at least two of the options open to me, and possibly all three, are going to be on the same page. I try the iron one - the section for which starts at the bottom of one page and continues on the next, so it's on the same pages as both of the others I could have turned to, though each of them only shares the page with part of this one. The door is locked, and as I try to pick the lock, I smell sulphur, and look up to see a troop of Demons approaching from the right. They attack en masse, with a Skill of 13 (which would be significantly reduced if I had a crucifix, which I don't), and it takes some lucky rolling (and copious use of Luck to increase damage when I wound them) for me to survive.

For some reason I'm not allowed to try the other door (though I could have another go at the iron one and get attacked by more Demons if I were insane), so I just move away. The corridor leads to the kitchen, and I decide to try and intimidate the chefs into letting me eat (this being an adventure in which I can only consume Provisions when permitted to by the text - and by now I need food-induced healing). My being armed with a sword convinces two chefs to surrender, but the third goes for me with a kitchen knife. I defeat him with ease, and use kitchen towels to tie up and gag the other two. Then I can eat (only one meal, but even that leaves me a lot less close to death), and I also help myself to some bones that are lying in a corner.

Heading back along the corridor, I now have the option of trying the door opposite the iron one. It leads into a corridor with a locked door at the far end, and this section has already been entered into the gamebook manager, confirming something I've wondered about since the room with the grimoire: after leaving it, I got turned around (not through confusion on my part, but because the text forced me to go one way without specifying which way it was), so the door I was compelled to ignore was the one leading to Bat, mallet, stakes and chain (sounds a bit like a company of solicitors), and the locked iron door leads back to the dungeons.

So I can try to open the locked door at the end of this corridor, which will lead to an encounter with some guards and a Puma, after which I may be forced to confront Throngard's Dragon (and I don't have the bow and arrow I'd need to have a shot at killing it), or I can turn back. But the way section transitions were handled prior to my last fight has left me with a sneaking suspicion that returning to the corridor might mean encountering another bunch of Demons. As Bart Simpson put it, "Well, you're damned if you do, and you're damned if you don't."

It would be silly to get into a fight against a Skill 15 opponent just because I think I might otherwise be forced to take on a Skill 13 opponent, so I should see if there's any substance to my suspicions.

There is. And with my Stamina and Luck still depleted from the previous fight, I don't survive the rematch. This could have been avoided if I'd been given a choice of directions after leaving the room with the grimoire, or even just been told which way I went. The adventure's only 172 sections long, so it's not as if Mr. Williams didn't have room for a section covering that detail. After this attempt, I must revise my opinion of the adventure again: Fortress Throngard isn't as bad as I used to think it was, but it does still have some serious problems.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Think About Direction, Wonder Why You Haven't

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh no!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 19 April 2013

This Was All Mine Until He Stole It From Me

Four weeks ago I played both of the second pair of Sutherland and Farrell's Double Game books, The City of Shadows, simultaneously. At that time I wrote up my experiences in book 2 of that pairing, Bardik - the Thief, so as to maintain a little suspense in the write-up of the companion book, Coreus - the Prince. After all, Coreus was still alive at the point when Bardik died, so if I'd written the Coreus post first, that would have given away how Bardik died, making the bulk of the Bardik entry rather predictable.

When it comes to generating Coreus' stats, Agility is the costly attribute. It's also likely to be an important one, so I take a bit of a hit on every other attribute to ensure slightly better than 50% odds of not tripping over my feet at an inopportune moment.
Strength 8
Agility 7
Luck 9
Magic 8
Battleaxe skill 9
That Magic score keeps me from knowing a couple of the available spells, but neither of them look all that important.

Anyway, I am the son of the chief of the Hukor tribe, and we've been driven close to extinction over the course of a centuries-long war with the Marl tribe. Making peace is apparently not an option, so our only hope lies in summoning the spirit of my mighty ancestor Alrik, who will be able to do something unspecified to assure our victory. Except that to summon him I must use four sacred artefacts - three rods and a sceptre - that were pilfered by a low-life named Ashrak just the other day. Consequently I have been sent to follow him back to Koragon, infamous City of Shadows, and reclaim the stolen items.

The adventure starts as I arrive outside Koragon. There's quite a queue at the gate, so I head around the walls to another entrance, which is less busy. Not being a city person, I get a little claustrophobic, and lose my bearings. I also get hungry, but rather than risk getting really lost searching for a Hukor restaurant, I follow the crowds: today is market day, so most people will be heading for the market, and there's no way the market won't have food stalls.

My plan works, and when I realise that I'm hungry (touch of authorial sloppiness there), I buy some bread and sausage from a stall. For a while after that I wander around the market, and as it gets late, stalls begin to close. Observing that not all the traders from out of town are heading for the gates, I ask one about good places to stay, and he gives me directions to the Black Swan tavern in Outsiders' Quarter. This establishment has a chatty proprietress, who tells me that my money is only good in Outsiders' Quarter, and the rest of the city has its own currency. I'm sceptical: gold is still gold, whichever part of the city I might be in, but I keep my doubts to myself.

Aware that approaching the authorities almost never helps in gamebooks, I start searching for Ashrak on my own. Making enquiries at the market (multiple days are market day), I get a couple of possible leads, and decide to check out the Caravan Market. The thief travelled here in a camel train, and if I can find the man who brought him here, I might be able to find out where he went next. It takes a while, but eventually I find some camels with a familiar brand. The owner is initially uncooperative, but a few gold nuggets make him more talkative, and he says that Ashrak probably lives in South Quarter.

Proceeding to South Quarter, I find its atmosphere even more troubling than that of the rest of the city. Several dodgy-looking individuals start to tail me, and I decide to leave while I'm still in one piece. This is not a place to be if I don't know my way around. Back at the Black Swan, I talk with the owner, asking about local art collectors. She names Serphan, a member of the city's ruling council, so I decide to investigate him the following day.

The next morning I head for David's Quarter, the posh part of town. Finding Serphan's house is easy enough, and when I spot a side gate that has carelessly been left open, I decide to go in. Catching sight of some patrolling soldiers, I conceal myself in the bushes. I turn my attention to the house, and catch sight of a furtive figure near a window. He's obviously not supposed to be here either, and when he spots me, I beckon him across. It turns out that he's a local thief by the name of Bardik, who only came in here to evade an angry mob. Aware that having an ally who knows the area could make things a lot easier, I seek his assistance, and he agrees to help me.

He accompanies me back to the Black Swan to work out a plan of action, and suggests that Ashrak might have sold the stolen artefacts in the Religious Gifts and Artefacts Shop on Penn Isle. We go there, and find the proprietor, Henryk Soburg, unwilling to talk. I try to intimidate him - shouldn't be too difficult, what with being an axe-wielding barbarian. Soburg says he's handled worse than the two of us, but rapidly changes his tune when Bardik stops spectating and adds his own threats to mine. He says that Ashrak did bring the rods and sceptre to him, but he (Soburg) refused to buy them. The merchant then comments that Serphan is just the sort of 'no questions asked' type to have bought them. Excellent work, Bardik: we've now established that we were in the right place before we went away to try and find out where we should be.

Bardik points out that Serphan has some of the best security in all Koragon, but it'll take more than that to deter me. In order to get a better idea of the security arrangements, we go to Frem's Theatre (currently putting on Midsolstice Morn's Fantasia by Peare Hakess (doubtless a relation of Malliwi Rapesheake)) and sneak onto the roof, which gives us a good view of Serphan's house and grounds. The back garden seems the best way in.

Heading back to Serphan's, we scale the wall and creep through the undergrowth. The text has me wondering why Serphan has allowed his garden to become so overgrown, and it occurs to me that the vegetation might conceal some unpleasant surprises for intruders, so when Bardik hurries across the open ground towards the house, I go with him. He's displeased at this, but we attract no attention, and get into the house without difficulty.

A quick look around the ground floor leads us to discover four guards at the foot of the stairs. They start to move away from us, so rather than risk attracting their attention by creating an unnecessary distraction, we creep upstairs. Despite my low Dexterity, I manage to avoid making any noise, and we evade a couple of patrolling guards on the first floor. I become aware of a strange sensation, and while Bardik tries to dismiss it as fear, I am convinced that some sixth sense is drawing me towards the rods. My ally rolls his eyes, but allows me to follow my instincts just in case I'm onto something.

Slipping into a near-trance state, and vaguely aware that in this condition I'm going to be no good at all in a fight, I am compelled to approach a wall. For a moment Bardik gives me a 'told you so' look, but then some thiefly instinct of his kicks in, and he manages to open a secret door into what turns out to be Serphan's treasure store (annoyingly referred to as 'a veritable Dinalla's Cave' to maintain the authors' anagram-based faux-otherworldliness). For some reason the draw of the rods has ceased, so I have to search the room for them. By the time I do discover them, Bardik has helped himself to a substantial quantity of the other treasures lying around, and is colourfully expressing his regret at not being able to fit any more into his bag. Seeing that I've got what I came for, he suggests that we should move on.

"Have you set the staircase alight?" asks the book. I don't think I want to know what kind of 'logic' could have led to my choosing arson as a means of distracting guards in a house I was expecting to have to spend a long time searching. But I chose the less pyromaniacal option, and am thus not forced to leap out of a window at this point.

We creep downstairs until startled by a noise, at which point both of us leap to the ground floor. The source of the noise is on our right, the exit to our left. I still need to find the sceptre, so leaving would be a bit premature. Investigating the sound, we discover Serphan, flanked by several guards whom he restrains from attacking because he wants to see his 'beauties' deal with us. These are strange venomous Karaza beasts, summoned into being when Serphan throws a couple of eggs on the floor, and we each have to deal with one. My opponent only hits me once, and my Luck is enough to keep me from being affected by its paralysing ichor. Bardik takes a few more blows, but also remains functional.

Annoyingly, the book then has us smash a window to escape, denying me the opportunity to interrogate Serphan about what he's done with the sceptre. Sentries start to close in on us as we seek a way out of the grounds, and there are three men between us and the wall. I'm not convinced that evasive manoeuvres will help much with hostiles on all sides, but there is a viable alternative: my Magic score is high enough that I know the spell Stun Cloud, which should take car of the trio in our way.

Well, I imagine it would if the book gave me the option of casting it, but instead it has me throw my axe at one of the sentries, and forces us to fight the other two. Despite having pretty mediocre stats, the sentries fight well, and in his weakened state, Bardik does not survive. Still, I manage to fell my opponent before Bardik's killer can turn on me, and he's taken enough damage that I only have to hit him once to finish him off.

I roll 11, which is a miss, and the sentry gets in a blow, bringing me close to death. Nevertheless, the odds are still in my favour. Not that odds can be relied upon: I roll another 11, missing again, and the sentry is not so unlucky. Yes, I lasted a whole two combat rounds longer than Bardik, and wound up killed by the very same man who slew him.

To cap things off, I inadvertently glimpsed a section which reveals that the sceptre isn't in the house anyway. So when the book had me make the seemingly irrational decision to leave, that could have been because I sensed that there was nothing to be gained by staying. But if I somehow knew that there was no point in hanging around any longer, it would have been helpful to have the text actually let me (the reader) know that I (Coreus) knew. That way I could have avoided at least some of the fighting that ultimately led to both my characters' deaths. Between that and the lack of opportunity to use Stun Cloud, I've rather gone off the adventure, which I'd been enjoying until then

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Down to the Bottom of the Sea

It was probably Friday 24th January 1986 when I got issue 8 of Warlock. I remember being very impressed at the inside front cover ad for the next FF gamebook, Demons of the Deep, which announced that the book was out on the 31st. The following morning my wanderings took me down the High Street, and I popped into the bookshop where I'd acquired Scorpion Swamp, among others. And on the shelves, to my amazement, I saw DotD, before the book was supposed to be in the shops! Having enough money on me to buy the book, I hurriedly did so, lest the staff realise their error and pull the book from the shelves, forcing me to wait until the end of the month to get it. As I recall, my first attempt at it followed a similar path to my previous playthrough, except that I think I pushed my luck that bit too far and wound up drowning at the end.

In this book I play a ship's Captain first mate (is today really the first time I've noticed my character's actual rank?), the last of the crew left standing when pirates attack. Which is not utterly implausible with these stats:
Skill 10
Stamina 17
Luck 8
After all, they're only pirates, not master villains.

One of the rogues knocks me out, and when I come round, Captain Bloodaxe has selected me to be the straight man in his new comedy routine, which involves him giving me my sword and a big bag of Provisions, then shoving me overboard with my hands still tied. The other pirates laugh, but it's not exactly a classic even within the subset of jokes that involve someone ending up in the water.

Still, the joke may yet wind up being on him, as the ship happens to be floating above a sunken city, and I happen to hit the sea bed smack in the middle of a whacking great magical symbol that gives me gills and waterproofs those Provisions. I cut my bonds on a bit of coral, and start exploring my surroundings.

One of the buildings surrounding the courtyard in which I arrived is larger and in better condition than the rest, and something inside it is looking at me. I investigate, and find my observer to be a Mermaid. She tells me that I'm in Atlantis, the gills will last until sundown or until I surface, whichever comes first, and that I should look for Black Pearls if I want revenge on the pirates. Then she gives me a Lucky Charm, blows me a kiss, and swims away.

I explore the building further, ascending the tower and getting attacked by a few Barracudas, which don't pose much of a threat. There's a little gold in the room, so I help myself to that before descending and checking out a hallway. This time round I head in the correct direction, which takes me up an ever-darkening tunnel to a room occupied by a pair of glowing animated Skeletons. The first of these does a lot more damage than it should, considering the disparity between our Skill scores, but ultimately I prevail. The Skeletons have a Black Pearl in each eye-socket, so I help myself to them before moving on.

My next port of call is a large arena, where I find an abandoned harpoon. Investigating the seats, I find a group of Sea Snakes, and the dice give me a hard time fighting them, too. To make things worse, the Snakes' venom increases the damage they do, and I'm dead before I even realise how bad things have become.

A disappointing ending, but there's no point in cheating, so that's how it goes. At least this way I'm spared the ethical quandary of choosing between learning some rather dubious magic and having to settle for a sub-standard victory.

Monday, 15 April 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 12 April 2013

To Pick the Broken Ruins up Again

As I explained before, I got into Smith & Thomson's Falcon gamebooks when I came across three of them at the Book Exchange. For some reason, Mechanon, the second book in the series, was not among those three. A copy did eventually turn up there, but by the time it did, that gap in my collection had already been filled. On several occasions my paternal grandparents included a random SF book in one of my Birthday presents, because they knew I was a fan of the genre, and one time the book they found turned out to be Mechanon. On another occasion, it was one of Michael Kring's intriguing but exasperatingly incomplete Space Mavericks series, which has nothing to do with gamebooks, but I mention it here on the off-chance that Mr. Kring might Google his name, find this post, and learn that there are people out there who still want to know what Fripp and Kohn would have discovered on the planet Charcoal, even after all these years.

Getting back to the point, I don't remember much about my first attempt at Mechanon, though I'm pretty sure my interaction with one character was influenced by my having read one of the later Falcon books which included an encounter with that character (time travel-related awkwardness making that the second occasion on which we met for the first time (though my reading the books out of order meant that for me the second first meeting came before the first one)). And I failed as a consequence of ignoring a trivial distraction that turned out to lead to the destruction of Earth in the mid-1980s.

The same subsequent book that affected my first reading of Mechanon also established that alternate timelines are part of the Falconverse, so I need have no qualms about shunting my unsuccessful attempt at the first book into a parallel reality. This playthrough takes place after the version of events in which Falcon thwarted the villain's attempts to rewrite history, killed the renegade Lord of TIME, and arrested the treacherous Commander Yelov, who got slightly disfigured in the process.

At the start of this new adventure, I'm enjoying some downtime with fellow TIME agents. We only have a little time for banter before section leader Jobanque contacts me with news of a new mission. Yelov, now a cyborg because there was no other remedy for the injuries I inflicted in the course of bringing him to justice, has escaped thanks to a malfunction in the device that was supposed to have suppressed his psionic abilities. He also stole a time machine, and there are strong indications that he's interfering in the past of the planet Mechanon, a fully automated world that manufactured robots and weapons until a nuclear accident melted it.

While preparing to get going, I research Mechanon, learning that it was created as a memorial by an ancient spacefaring race known as the Danikoi (and I've only just realised the pun on von Daniken). The robots decided to preserve the memorial by wiping out all other sentient races before any of them could become a threat to it, but some mishap with a reactor wiped them out before they could implement their genocidal plans. Well, that's what originally happened. Doubtless Yelov intends to avert that little disaster and exploit Mechanon's resources for his own ends.

I receive a list of all time trips carried out within the past half-dozen hours, which can only have been made by Yelov. Most of these are to Mechanon or Thrix, the latter being a planet rich in the mineral that fuels Time Machines, but there's also been a brief jaunt to Earth's Hundred Years War. I choose to investigate the anomalous journey first - and metaknowledge has stepped on the toes of in-game knowledge: if I'd done some research first, I'd know the most likely reason for Yelov's intervention, but because I remembered details from past attempts, and didn't waste time looking things up, technically I don't actually know that one of the combatants on the English side is probably an ancestor of mine. Nevertheless, I still have the option of seeking him out, so I do so.

Disguised as a man-at-arms, I mingle with the English troops. The fighting isn't pretty, but I stand my ground. Sir Thomas Chandos, my probable ancestor, confronts the French Count Louis de Nevers, and I let events take their course, watching as Chandos runs de Nevers through. Time seems to have a slightly malicious nature, and any interference on my part has a disproportionately high probability of leading to de Nevers surviving to become the ancestor of someone who'd get my job instead of me.

A mysterious black knight whose mace appears electrically charged prepares to attack Sir Thomas. Now is the time to intervene, and I take the risk of using my sword rather than adding further anachronisms to the battle. As I strike the knight's arm, deflecting his blow, smoke and sparks erupt from 'his' elbow. The knight turns to face me, and fires a laser from its helmet, but I dodge and try to hit something vital with the sword. I fail, and take a mighty blow from the mace. The knight returns its attention to Sir Thomas, who is busy dealing with human foes, and I try to compel one of them to attack the knight. An unlucky roll causes me to fail, the knight pulps Sir Thomas' skull, and history rewrites itself without every descendant Chandos would have had if he'd survived the battle. Including me.

That was disappointingly quick. The Falcon books can be a bit unforgiving of poor dice (though they're nowhere near the worst offenders in that regard). Well, I may wind up replaying all the books I failed at some point, so I won't give away the twist that comes much later on in the adventure. But it will be a long while before I get another go at this book.

Unless, that is, it proves a dark horse in the poll to determine what I replay for this blog's hundredth playthrough on Monday. There's still a day to go, so if you haven't yet voted, you can still make a difference.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

The Winter of Our Discontent

The mini-adventure in issue 8 of Warlock magazine was The Floating City, which turned out to be the first part of a sort-of trilogy by Ruth Pracy ('sort-of' because the third part appeared in a different magazine, and included set-up for a further adventure which, as far as I can tell, never actually got written). It made a big impression at the time, but its reputation has diminished since then.

I don't remember any specifics of my first attempt at TFC, and what I do recall about getting the magazine forms part of a not-that-exciting story that I shall tell in around a week. I played it a lot as research for the review at, but that didn't keep me from making a fatal blunder in the more recent attempt described here.

It is a world in which summer and winter have their own regions, and last all year round, while the land between these zones switches between spring and autumn. I'm an adventurer, my past shrouded in mystery, and my stats as follows:
Skill 9
Stamina 15
Luck 8
Slightly fudged, because of the tough fight at the end, but with rolls as poor as I got, there was no way of creating a character with a realistic chance of survival.

I've just entered the lands of winter when I hear the sounds of battle. Arriving on the scene too late to intervene, I see a large bird flying away from a group of dead and dying guards. The one who's not dead yet manages to mutter a few words about Karon's Dwarf and the Floating City before expiring. I remember the tale of the Dwarf: Lord Karon found him in an Eagle's nest, kept prisoner by the Eagle to keep her eggs warm, and he became Karon's beloved jester. Concluding that the Eagle must have abducted the Dwarf again, and that the wealthy Lord Karon is certain to reward whoever rescues the Dwarf a second time, I head off in the same direction I saw that bird go.

After some time I catch sight of a derelict hut, so naturally I go for a look inside. There's a harpoon attached to a coil of rope, hanging on the far wall, which could come in handy, so I grab that - or try to, but suddenly the floor caves in, and my Luck is just too low to enable me to grab the edge, so I fall into the pit, taking Skill and Stamina damage, and getting attacked by the three-eyed Bear-Trap that lives in the pit. The fight does not go that well - I do win, but at the cost of half my remaining Stamina. Helping myself to the gold and the earmuffs that are in the pit, I climb back out and take the harpoon, which turns out to be made of a precious metal that changes temperature in response to my thoughts.

Next I venture out onto the nearby glacier, and get funnelled through four sections before I get to make another decision. This is far from the only instance of padding in the adventure, which doesn't need to be anywhere near the 200 sections it is - 150 would have been more than enough. But while I've been complaining about the superfluous page-turning enforced by such shenanigans, a crevasse has opened up in front of me. There's something on a ledge further down, so I use the harpoon to snag it and haul it up. It turns out to be the well-preserved corpse of someone who was too distracted by the excess sections (the retrieval of the body was split into two for no good reason) to avoid the crevasse. I relieve the dead man of his gold and dagger, then push the cadaver back where I found it.

At this point I feel I should say something about the acquisition of items. This is far from the only adventure in which grabbing all manner of random gubbins turns out to be important later on, but the ridiculousness of the situation is slightly more highlighted here. You see, I've already encountered (but neglected to mention) two opportunities to add random organic left-overs to my inventory: there was a scale (like you'd find on a snake's skin) in the pit, and a generic bone among the dead man's effects. Later in the adventure, there's an opportunity to acquire a potion which will allow me to take on the form of any kind of animal, so long as I have a part of such an animal. And once I get the potion, there's a good reason to start hoarding DNA samples from any creature it could be worth becoming for a short while. But that hasn't happened yet, and it's just a bit silly that I'm already being given the option of collecting random animal pieces that I find lying around. Especially as that scale turns out to be from a fish (is it really that hard to tell the difference?), so the only purpose served by my being allowed to take the scale from the pit is to make it possible to reach the 'Ha ha, in fish form you can't breathe out of water, so you DIE!' ending towards the end of the adventure.

Another unnecessary section intervenes before a boulder rolls down and blocks my path. I take a closer look at it, and it sprouts an arm, which grabs me. No cause for alarm, though: this is no Boulder Beast, but a friendly Tornaq (one of many elements of Inuit myth that have been incorporated into the adventure). I tell her of my quest, and she obviously thinks I'm out of my depth (she's almost certainly right), but warns me that the Dwarf is not what he seems.

The text spends three sections telling me that there's a lake to the north, with the Floating City above it, another hut to the east, and a mass of ice floes between me and the locations of interest. I am compelled to head to the hut, and a thoroughly random roll determines that I slip and fall into the icy water, sinking without trace. Oh well, at least this time I failed through no fault of my own.

Monday, 8 April 2013

The Affair Had About It Much of the Improbable

Walker Vaning's Sorcerer Solitaire is the first of the regular Tunnels & Trolls solo adventures with which I had no history prior to acquiring a copy as part of an eBay lot. I have vague memories of flicking through the adventure in the central library, which suggests that the postman didn't deliver the parcel containing it, so I had to collect it from the depot.

As the title suggests, this adventure is exclusively for wizard characters. There are certain minimum stat requirements for wizards, so to ensure that I'd have a suitable character for it, I rolled up two characters when preparing to play The Legend of the _____(adj.) _____(noun)  around a week ago, and saved the one better suited to Sorcerer Solitaire for today. He has:
Strength 16
Intelligence 12
Luck 10
Constitution 10
Dexterity 12
Charisma 11
Speed 12
Owing to the cost of a magic staff, and the risk of having home-made ones explode, he'll have to make do without one, and hope not to need to cast Take That, You Fiend too many times in quick succession.

The author refrains from opening with, 'It is a dark and stormy night', though that would accurately describe the set-up, and to be honest, 'It's an evil night out' isn't a whole lot better. I'm outdoors, hearing wolves howl and occasionally glimpsing prowling creatures when the full moon peeks through the clouds, and suddenly notice that I'm close to a large mansion 'which reeks of rotting corpses'. Heavy iron bars seal the windows, and the front door is locked, but a Knock-Knock spell gets it open (with the obligatory sinister creak).

I step inside, and catch sight of a glowing skull, which triggers my innate ability to sense magic (just in case I'd been about to assume a perfectly naturalistic explanation for the glowing). The door slams and locks behind me. Doors lead to left and right, and behind the skull is a staircase. I decide to take a closer look at the skull.

That can't do any harm, can it?

The glow intensifies, and I am transformed. If I'd had any attributes above 50, they would have been reduced, but as it is, I only get to experience the (probably) beneficial effect, whereby any stat below 12 is rerolled on 5 dice. This pushes my Luck up to 17, my Constitution to 12 and my Charisma to 16. The skull then becomes a burnt-out cinder. And hanging around getting enhanced has taken long enough that natural healing has restored some of the Strength I spent getting the door open.

I go right, finding myself in a darkened corridor. There's a light at the far end, and I can hear something. Annoyingly, the author doesn't seem to have considered the possibility that I might have brought along conventional means of making light in order to conserve Strength, so unless I want to blunder around in the dark, I have no choice but to cast Will-o-wisp in order to make my finger light up. My middle name starts with T, so I grew tired of E.T. jokes way back in the 1980s (and they got worse once I had a classmate whose first name was Elliott), but I have no great desire to stumble into a trap that would be obvious to anyone who could see, so I'd better cast the spell.

Nothing bad happens as I head along the corridor, which leads to a room containing a heavily-scarred and foul-smelling Rogue. He asks me to teach him the TTYF spell but, concerned that he might try to test it out on me, I politely decline. My Charisma is now high enough that I have the minimum possible chance of failing the Saving Roll to mollify him, and that approach will also net me more Experience points. Yep, a comfortable success, so he lets me pass.

As I leave the room, I find a jewel on the floor. That can go into the magic staff fund. Then I'm in another darkened corridor, and get the sensation that something is watching me. A cold, damp breeze makes me shudder. Time for another WoW spell, I suppose. And that was a wise choice, as the sudden illumination scares off the ghouls that were sneaking up on me, and I get a hefty experience bonus for resolving the situation so painlessly.

Suddenly it gets dark. Something is negating the effect of the spell. The torch the book didn't previously acknowledge I could be carrying won't work either, and I sense something evil close by. I can either grope around in the dark or try another spell. Not being able to see anything, I doubt that anything other than Oh-Go-Away will be particularly useful here. And that won't work on opponents with a Monster Rating of 45 or more. Then again, any foe that tough would be likely to flatten me in the first round of a fight even under optimal circumstances.

As I cast the spell, a clammy tentacle wraps around my ankle and the soulsucker starts to drain my bodily heat. The spell takes effect, and the monster is scared away - just. It wouldn't have been powerful enough if I hadn't had my Luck and Charisma enhanced by the skull. I am teleported to somewhere that seems safe. Best not to push my luck, though, so I only take a short rest before moving on.

It appears that Castle of Lost Souls wasn't the first adventure in which the layout varies depending on decisions made. At any rate, I get the impression that the duration of my rest determined where I wound up next. Which turns out to be a bat-filled room with a guano-coated floor, lit by luminescent fungi. Close to the cave exit I find three clumps of mushrooms or toadstools, one of them covered in dead flies, another barely visible beneath the mound of dead insects and bats, and oozing purple filaments. There's no way of picking mushrooms from one clump without crushing the other two, so if I'm reckless enough to try eating any, I only get one shot. I take a chance on the ones that don't have anything dead on them, and, while bitter, they're nutritious and put me in such a good mood that I get a Charisma bonus.

Moving on before the stink of bat guano gets too much for me, I enter a room with two exits in the wall on my left, and a giant green nostril in the wall on my right. I wonder if it was inspired by immature extrapolation from the giant green hand that grabbed the Starship Enterprise in an episode of sixties Star Trek. The nostril is allergic to adventurers, and sneezes, blowing me through a random exit. This place is getting odd.

Somehow, while being nasally propelled onwards, I managed to notice a sign on the door reading 'Monster Reconditioning and Experimentation'. The room in which I arrive contains a small man in a lab coat, as well as anachronistic-looking technology and dead monsters. Upon catching sight of me, the technician panics and flees, and the giant Gobbler on which he was experimenting goes out of control and starts to eat its surroundings. I'll get eaten (as will the entire house) unless I can figure out which of the five buttons on the console can avert disaster. The buttons are labelled (though 'label' is misspelled in the book), but not in a language I can understand, so I'll have to go with the colour coding.

Red tends to be associated with danger, so that might mean 'press in case of emergency'. But the Gobbler is described as being brown, which I was taught is the traditional product of combining CMY colours, so maybe white, being the equivalent in RGB, will neutralise it... Or blue might freeze it, or yellow give it a fatal dose of tartrazine, or green fill it with environmental awareness until it stops its rampant consumption of global resources - in a place this loopy, anything is possible. I take a chance on white. A sign lights up, reading 'Out Of Order' (how come that one I can understand?). One second chance... Red!

It releases a second Gobbler. They eat each other out of existence. And I don't think pressing buttons constitutes strenuous activity, even when done in a panic, so Strength recovery continues apace. Then I get told I'm allowed to sleep here and return to full Strength, so the bookkeeping has been a little unnecessary. I also get to loot as much as I can carry, so I'd better pay some attention to the encumbrance rules that haven't been worth bothering with up until now. Let's see, I can carry up to 1600 units. What I had on me comes to 706. A bag of gems and all the gold in sight bring me up to 966, so I can manage up to 63.4 gold pieces' worth of silver. For simplicity's sake, make it just 63.

While I'm asleep, guards pick me up and put me outside, allowing me to keep everything I found in there. Very obliging chaps: if I'd been a vampire, they'd even have gone to the effort of depositing me in a shady spot to keep me from frying in the light of the sun. And unless I want to wait for nightfall and go back to the start of the adventure, that's game over. Another success, then, and I'm almost half way to levelling up. Besides which, I can now afford a staff and some better armour. This character will be returning, so I'd better give him a name. And since I didn't get to use all the ones offered up for use in TLot(a)(n), I shall pick one of them. In view of the increasingly surreal nature of this adventure, Incredulous Godfrey seems to fit rather well.

It'll be a long while before I get there, but the last of the main run of Flying Buffalo T&T solos included a revised edition of Sorcerer Solitaire. If the changes are as extensive as in, say, the Warlock magazine variants of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and House of Hell, I'll have a go at that for the blog as well.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Strange Cargo

The third Combat Command gamebook is set In the World of Keith Laumer's Star Colony. So that's a series about which I know nothing, by an author of whom I've never heard before. The Omega Rebellion by Troy Denning, has an introduction by Mr. Laumer, which spells out some of the specifics of the Star Colony universe (Earth a dystopia with overcrowding like Make Room, Make Room or Vonnegut's Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, emigration to a colony world strictly limited in order to maintain the power base of Earth's ruling quadrumvirate, there are rebels) and goes on to describe much of what can happen in the gamebook. Doesn't exactly inspire me to get to know his works any better, but it does clarify the implications of the first decision, and suggests that this adventure has a number of viable plotlines, and decisions might affect more than just the probability of failure.

It's another third person narrative gamebook, and the protagonist is Gasper Newlin, one of the lucky people who actually have a job. Okay, he's only a junkloader, but that entitles him and his eleven-strong extended family to a flat with three rooms. And on the day on which the adventure starts, he's liable to be late for work, as he steps out of the lift to find that a dozen cops have set up an ambush for some wanted individual, and are blocking his commute.

He sees a woman with an eye patch approaching. The cops cannot be seen from her end of the corridor, so she may well be their target. Gasper must decide whether to warn her or mind his own business. Weighing up the situation, I note the following points:

  1. The status quo in this world is pretty horrible.
  2. "Cops sometimes detain even innocent citizens." (A direct quotation from the book).
  3. The woman waved and smiled, and actually behaved in a friendly manner.
  4. I find fiction's use of disability (specifically, the loss of an eye) to denote villainy objectionable. 
  5. Even if Gasper doesn't rock the boat here, horrible stuff is still liable to happen to him and/or his family (see points 1 and 2 and Keith Laumer's introduction).
Some of the cops notice Gasper, and indicate their desire for him to keep quiet by putting their gun barrels to their lips. The lift doors open again, and as Gasper steps inside, he shakes his head at the woman, who turns and runs. The cops divide into two groups, one pursuing the woman, the other heading for the lift, but the doors close before any harm can come to Gasper. Bet the trains run on time, too.

The lift takes Gasper up eleven floors, further increasing the risk of his being late for work, but the delay is the least of his worries, as a dozen armed men, most likely rebels, are heading towards the lift when the doors open again. They want to go to the floor from which he's just come. He could refuse to wait for them and go up another eleven floors (does the lift not do shorter distances?), but I think it's time he accepted that he's chosen a side, so he holds the lift for the rebels.

I was expecting that they'd force Gasper to take them down, but he chooses to stay in the lift - evidently Mr. Denning also thinks that by now our hero has committed himself to a cause. He warns the rebels of what's happening on the lower floor, and their leader hands him a spare pistol, urging him to try not to hit any of his new comrades. He also puts Gasper in charge of their tactics for the forthcoming fight, on the grounds that the junkloader knows the territory. Gasper protests that he's never been in a gunfight before, and the rebel replies that neither have they. I don't know if the setting provides any justification for the rebels' lack of experience, but at least in this set-up it makes a little sense for the character I control to be calling the shots. Besides, it's mildly amusing.

There's no reception committee waiting when the doors open, and the sound of gunfire indicates that the cops have the woman cornered. Gasper and the rebels head to where the fight is, and see the woman sheltering behind trash barrels and wielding a submachine gun. Time to try and make things a little less one-sided...

Somewhat implausibly, the cops turn out to be significantly worse fighters than the rebels. The dice appear to be on board with the 'inexperienced combatants' thing, as the minimum possible number of casualties is inflicted in several rounds. Still, eventually the last of the cops realises that he's just a day away from retirement, and only four rebels have perished in the exchange of fire.

Though no introductions have been made, the woman is now referred to as Tita. She flirts with Gasper a bit, and points out that he's definitely one of them now, as CSI:Hillgrove Production Complex will be able to identify every participant in the firefight. Gasper is formally welcomed into the rebel group, which goes by the catchy name of the Organization (wonder if the Piranha brothers were among its founder members), and gets appointed as Tita's bodyguard.

The group stows away on a cargo jet to Mojave Spaceport. Tita's mission is to stow away on the spaceship Saretta, which is due to be launched tomorrow. The airstrip is ten miles from the launch pad, so the rebels have a bit of a trek ahead of them. After a while they spot half a dozen of Banshire's marines (I'm guessing that Banshire is one of the dictators, but the book hasn't said a lot about him) and manage to sneak past.

The Saretta turns out to be a colonyship, and Tita decides to add Gasper to the group she's infiltrating into the human cargo. With the assistance of an undercover Organization member, they're added to the people in Coldsleep, but arrangements are made for them to wake up in transit. An injection sends Gasper into a rather bland dream sequence.

Just over three months later, the rebel infiltrators are awake. Now they have to take over the ship. Gasper asks if any of them know how to fly the thing, and gets told, "That's not the point." Probably another bit of dark humour relating to the ill-preparedness of the Organization, but in the light of something that happened 14 years after the book came out, it could be taken as something a good deal nastier. Still, the 'rebels without a clue' aspect is soon highlighted more clearly: none of the Organization actually know the way out of the cargo hold where they woke up. It's time to start looking for ventilation shafts!

Gasper finds a hatch in the floor. It only leads to another cargo hold, but this one contains weapons and field rations that are being smuggled on the ship. And then two of the crew open an access panel and start inspecting the deep-frozen colonists. This looks like a good opportunity to make a start on hijacking the ship. Yes, definitely the smart choice: the crewmen notice that some of the colonists aren't where they should be (that'd be Gasper, Tita and friends), and while their response is classic 'let someone else deal with it' material, it'd only take one not-so-indifferent co-worker of theirs to act on their report, and things could get a little unpleasant for the rebels. As it is, things get very unpleasant for the two crewmen, but it's all over quickly.

Kershaw, one of the other rebels, advises waiting for a team to be sent to find out why the hold inspectors are taking so long, and then ambushing them as well. Tita favours attacking the bridge before the crew can start to suspect that something's up. In view of how the two of them have been characterised, I'm having Gasper side with Kershaw. This bunch of rebels doesn't fight as well as the ones from earlier on, so it's probably better to tackle the enemy in smaller groups.

Someone in the crew must be paranoid. Instead of a couple more crewmen coming to see what those two slackers think they're up to, fourteen security guards raid the hold. Still, whether because of superior position, armaments or whatever, the rebels are the more effective fighters in this engagement. They're outnumbered, though, so this could go either way. Or not: four guards and two rebels fall in the first round, and over the course of the next three rounds the rebels pick off the remaining guards without taking any further casualties.

Now it's time to take the fight to the enemy. After a lengthy period of awkwardly wriggling through ducting, Gasper surprises a rather clueless crewman named Kirby, who leads the rebels to the bridge in return for not getting shot. One further rebel dies taking the bridge, but the officers are smart enough to surrender.

Tita subsequently explains the plot to Gasper. It turns out that Banshire was responsible for the weapon-smuggling, as he wanted to overthrow the leaders of the colony on planet Omega. He'd already managed to get a battalion of loyal men stationed there, and the contents of the secret second hold would have enabled them to conquer Omega for him. As it is, when the Saretta makes planetfall around five years later, the weapons are delivered to the colonists, enabling them to defend their autonomy, and the surviving rebels are welcomed into the community by a bunch of characters whose names would probably mean something to me if I'd read any of the Star Colony books.

I win. How about that? And it's a book that might be worth replaying anyway, just to see what plotlines would develop if different decisions are made at key points in the narrative. But even if I do, it won't be for a long while, as there are still a couple of hundred gamebooks awaiting their first playthrough on this blog.