Friday, 28 June 2013

He Died So His Brothers Could Be Free

A couple of months ago I mentioned having got some gamebooks at a sale in Chiesmans, and said that I'd list the non-Sagas of the Demonspawn ones I acquired at that time when I got around to playing them for this blog. So now it's time for me to state that another of those gamebooks was Bloodfeud of Altheus, the first book in John Butterfield, David Honigmann and Philip Parker's Cretan Chronicles series. I remember reading some of it on the way home, and being mildly penalised for thinking my character might know something about the city of Acharnae. I also discovered that in Mythic Greece it can be unwise to try and prevent cruelty to animals.

My current copy is a later printing than the one I first got, and I'm pretty sure that in the intervening time the publishers had fixed the printer's error that missed out the bottom line of one section, including the number to which I should have turned next. The mistake was not as serious as it would be in most gamebooks, though, as I was able to identify the missing number by taking a hint.

'Taking a hint' is an oddity of the Cretan Chronicles series: sometimes the number at the top of a section is italicised, which means that the reader has the option of adding 20 to the section number and turning to that section to try and do something other than one of the listed options. Sometimes this has positive consequences (avoiding an ambush, for example), sometimes it leads to being reprimanded for inappropriate behaviour (such as the Acharnae incident alluded to above), on at least one occasion in the series it leads to death, and there are other incidents where not doing it guarantees an unpleasant demise. On occasion it's quite clever, but there are a lot of times when it just provides the authors with a pretext for insulting the reader. And while the Honour penalty for taking the hint that got me around the printer's error was pretty mild, it was still annoying to get told I was a coward as a consequence of being unable to read what wasn't in the book.

The series starts from the premise that Theseus got killed by the Minotaur, and it thus falls to his less famous younger brother Altheus to avenge his death, put an end to the Cretan demands for tribute, and take care of all the other heroic feats attributed to his late brother. There's an incongruous use of the word 'replied' at the start of the background section, implying that the text begins mid-conversation, though given the generally obnoxious behaviour of the Greek deities in these books, it wouldn't seem out of place for Hermes to have opened with, 'Theseus is dead,' rather than bringing it up after some unrecorded dialogue.

Stats are predetermined, the only variable in character creation being which member of the Greek pantheon I choose as a patron. I have to pick one from a list of six, and I've never seen any evidence that the classmate and fellow gamebook enthusiast who recommended selecting Poseidon was talking nonsense, so I'll go with that and hope not to spend the bulk of this adventure upside down.

Having been informed of my fraternal responsibility, I tell my mother, who agrees that I must undertake the quest that has been thrust upon me, and gives me a jewel she received from my father, which I can show him to prove that I'm his son. Not exactly a close family, then. She also sends me to the local High Priest, and it is at this point that I officially select my patron. The waterspout of the temple fountain turns into a face, which belittles me and says not to pester him unless I have sailing to do.

I set off for Athens, reaching a fork in the path and, referring to memories of past attempts and to the map at the start of the book, turn right. A wolf emerges from the bushes, providing me with my first opportunity to encounter combat, Cretan Chronicles-style. It's an easy fight, both because of the wolf's low stats and thanks to the brutal simplicity of the system. Combatants are either Healthy, Wounded, Seriously Wounded or Dead, and the Seriously Wounded incur a significant penalty on their combat rolls, which is liable to hasten their demise. I have the option of spending Honour to improve my chances of hitting or not being hit, but in a fight like this it really isn't necessary. Taking a hint afterwards enables me to skin the wolf and take its pelt, which serves as very crude armour, and also gives me an Honour bonus.

I carry on to the town of Epidaurus, finding the locals unhappy and unwelcoming. In a decidedly insalubrious inn I learn that bandits are terrorising the temple of Asclepius the healer. The old man who tells me this sarcastically suggests that, being a hero, I could deal with these villains, so I take the challenge. On the road to the temple I take a hint to evade an ambush. Making a surprise attack on the men hiding in the bushes is probably not honourable, so I challenge them to a fight. Combat being as brutal as it is, I get killed, but in each Cretan Chronicles book I do get one shot at being brought back to life - though its effectiveness varies depending on the circumstances of my death. In this instance it works, but I'm restored to life at a safe distance from my foes.

In fact, I'm now close to the River Cleonae, which is about as far beyond Epidaurus as that town was from where I started. The river has been swollen by the spring thaws. An old woman pleads with me to carry her across the river, for if she cannot get to the far side, she'll starve. Among the choices offered here is to attack her and 'beat stony-hearted Hunger to it'(!), but I knew better than to try something like that even on my first try at the book, before I found out that the crone is a disguised goddess putting me to the test. I start to carry her over, and part of the way across she reveals her true identity and commends me, so I'm now in Favour with her.

Continuing across the river, I hear the sort of splash that might be caused by a pebble falling into the water, and taking a hint confirms that I just dropped the jewel that's supposed to prove my identity, so I retrieve it before carrying on. After an uneventful night in an inn, I set off again in the morning. Again I get a choice of route onwards, and I opt to go via Corinth. Taking a hint here might allow me to get a lift on a passing cart, but it could just lead to accusations of being scared of the grazing sheep, so I shan't risk it.

In the market I get a couple of recommendations about the next stage of my journey, and decide to see if I can get a boat to Athens from Crommyon. A farmer offers to give me a lift in his cart, and I don't steal his cheese (why is that even an option?).

I'm Altheus, not Alan

When we go our separate ways, he gives me some cheese. Continuing into the town, I encounter panic-stricken crowds, fleeing from a formidable-looking sow. I stand and fight, and the sow is such a big target that I have no trouble hitting it even when Seriously Wounded. Victory is mine (just), and one of the locals rewards me with a spear that's much more useful than the club I've been wielding up until now. However, fighting the sow delayed me long enough that the ship to Athens has sailed by the time I reach the harbour, so in the morning I continue on foot.

At the next junction I choose to head for Pagae, as I'd rather not risk getting into trouble with the law in Megara. This turns out to be a poor choice, as the town is afflicted with plague. If I'd succeeded in liberating Asclepius' temple, his Favour would have equipped me to help out here, but as it is, I'd best not linger. That too is a bad choice, as Athena turns up and, displaying a quirky speech impediment, wepwimands me for my wefusal to assist the town that is under her pwotection. I am now in Disfavour with her, and have gained my first Shame point. If Shame ever exceeds Honour, I have to commit suicide, so things just got trickier.

There's a statue of Hecate at the next fork in the road, holding a headless puppy in one of her hands and a torch in another. Passing on the torch side, I carry on to Eleusis, where the annual festival of Demeter is in full swing. Passing through the crowds, I wind up close to the temple, and the high priestess picks me out and leads me up the steps. I've been mistaken for one of the local commoners, and am expected to perform the springtime rite of corn, water and flame. At least I'm not expected to play any Stravinsky.

I pick up the urn of water and extinguish the fire. The crowd applauds. Bizarrely, even though the section starts, 'Having extinguished the flame,' the choices of what to do with the corn seed include burning it in the fire I just put out. But I correctly surmise which part of the panto this is, and fling handfuls of the seed into the crowd, who eagerly scrabble to grab the seeds. Festivities then commence, and after a night of partying (which, for many, includes the euphemistic 'celebrations of the fertility goddess') I am presented with a gold brooch shaped like an ear of corn, indicating that I am in Favour with Demeter.

Continuing on my way, I reach another junction. Judging by the map, I should ignore the side track. Before long I reach Athens. Not knowing the way to my father's palace, I decide to risk asking for directions. As I recall, the old man is a prankster or a lunatic - either way, he'll take me to a pigsty and I'll lose Honour - so I approach the young nobleman. He claims to be a stranger himself, and taking a hint sends me back to the old man. Sigh. Oh, and I don't lose Honour, I gain Shame. For all the difference it makes.

Still, the swineherd knows the way, and leads me to what smells like the kitchen door. I knock, and am asked who I am. In view of the undignified nature of my arrival, I give a false name, and am mistaken for one of the extra staff chosen to help at the feast. I get told to clean mixing-bowls, which is demeaning, but not enough to affect Honour or Shame. The Shame penalty doesn't come until I wind up serving at the big feast, and being offered charity by my own father, King Aegeus. Just to cap the embarrassment, I knock over a goblet, and become the centre of attention. The king asks me my business and, taking a hint, I show him the jewel before stating my name.

He welcomes me and says I'll have to be his envoy to Crete, to let Minos know that the annual tribute must be changed to gold and silver rather than people. His general indicates that I should also look out for military information in case (as he obviously hopes) this leads to war. Aegeus summons me to follow him while he sorts out the paperwork, and I do so. Once we're on our own, he mentions that it would actually be quite convenient if I could just kill the Minotaur, and hoist white sails for the return journey to indicate success. Also, an army of Amazons is about to besiege Athens for some reason, so I'll have to help fight them off.

Taking a hint, I scout out the Amazon camp under cover of darkness. I enter an unoccupied tent, and then an Amazon comes in, saying something about the queen's leopardskin. She shuts up when she sees me, and I attack before she can start yelling. Despite having marginally better stats, she gets lousy rolls, and I Seriously Wound her without taking a scratch. She surrenders and, as dead opponents can't be questioned, and there's a Shame penalty for killing a foe who's submitted, I spare her.

When I demand to know the reason for their attack, she explains that it's for the sake of a hairpin. Seriously. This particular hairpin is made of gold, sacred to Hera, and of great symbolic significance, and it was taken by some of Aegeus' soldiers, and the Amazons are determined to get it back. The authors choose to signify this knowledge without giving the truth away to readers who didn't take the hint by having me grab a silver earring, which strikes me as being very inappropriate. I also take her spear (not as good as the one I got for killing the sow) and shield. Being an honourable opponent, she doesn't raise the alarm as I leave.

Back at the palace I reveal what I know, and then get some rest. In the morning I'm asked if I know why the Amazons are invading. Okay, so turning to the relevant section leads to my being asked if I have the earring (with a Shame penalty for anyone who doesn't), but any player who was willing to lie about knowing why the Amazons are here isn't likely to be reluctant to lie about having the earring, so that's a rubbish way of handling the anti-cheat mechanism.

And it's only now that I mention the hairpin to my father (so what was I telling him last night?). Not keen on this war, Aegeus agrees to return the hairpin in question, and sends me to take it to the Amazon queen. It turns out to be almost as big as a sword and, taking a hint, I carry it openly. Aware that slaying its bearer would desecrate the hairpin, the Amazons don't lay a spearhead on me, but guide me to the queen's tent. She agrees to take her army back home, warns that any further Athenian incursions will be met with lethal force, and tells me to seek a friend of hers when I get to Crete, giving me her brooch to identify me as an ally.

Back at the palace I announce my diplomatic triumph, and celebrations ensue. I get some sleep, and find myself elsewhere, being pursued through corridors and ultimately attacked by the Minotaur. It's just a dream, though possibly a prophetic one. Now I need to be on my way to the harbour for the voyage to Crete, so I don my armour, say my farewells, and get lost in Athens. Taking a hint, I find that this is one of the 'authors being tiresome' instances - rather than doing something intelligent to find the right way, I speculate on the reasons for that dream and earn Shame for doubting the god responsible.

I reach the harbour shortly before the ship has to depart. The young people being sent as tribute draw encouragement from my presence, though my seasickness probably dampens their spirits. Then a big sea serpent pops up. This is where it pays to be a friend of Poseidon. Getting him to intervene costs a little Honour, and he makes some more snarky comments, but the ship is unharmed and my reputation is restored. At least until a storm damages the ship and costs three of the crew their lives.

The ship puts in at the isle of Cythnos for repairs and fresh supplies. I accompany the captain ashore, and take a hint to rescue the documents I'm supposed to take to Minos from a bunch of scrolls the captain gives to an innkeeper. Given the hyperbole the book subsequently indulges in when telling of what would have happened if the documents were lost, it's a bit poor that I get no Honour bonus for averting catastrophe.

When the ship is ready, we set off again. The captain asks my advice regarding our next port of call. The map suggests that Melos is on a more direct route, and given that the alternative, Delos, is sacred to Apollo, and thus could provide many opportunities to earn his Disfavour, I pick Melos. There I earn Honour by not joining the crew in hunting a cow, since the cattle are bound to belong to some deity or other.

Next we head for Thera, island of the lame blacksmith god Hephaestus. I suffer from a fever during the voyage, and have freaky visions, but that's just padding. On Thera I see three people at the foot of a cliff: a woman on a golden throne, a spear-toting warrior and a blacksmith with a bad leg. The cliff starts to crumble, the people cry for help, I only have time to save one, and even if the book hadn't pointed out whose island this is, I'd have picked the lame man. He rewards me with a sword, shield and breastplate better than anything I've yet acquired, and all three get even better bonuses against divine or divinely built creatures.

Another storm brews up as we set off again, but as I've managed not to offend Poseidon, it quietens down again. I spend a point of Honour rather than risk coming across as arrogant. My humility is rewarded with just a regular gale, which does little worse than cause the loss of the gold and silver for Minos and send us way off course to Cythera, Aphrodite's island. There I see a boat with a woman in, being swept towards the rocks, and go to the rescue.

Should have taken the hint. Especially as I mentioned the negative buoyancy of armour earlier this month. I wind up the one being rescued, to my Shame. If Aphrodite were my patron, I think I'd now be headed for the section that has the illustration with the conveniently-located (for keeping this book vaguely PG) flower. As it is, the woman just flirts a little before vanishing, at which point Altheus realises what I'd already twigged about her true identity.

Wandering the island while the ship is repaired again, I encounter a ranting castaway. I don't attack, and he requests a gift, so I offer cheese. He babbles about life-giving ichor flowing from the feet of the divine, and runs off.

Eventually the ship is ready to leave again. On the way to Crete, the captain tells me of Talos, the bronze giant who patrols around Crete and attacks any who mean the island harm. Taking a hint leads to further authorial unpleasantness: rather than formulating a strategy for evading Talos, I get another Shame point and a description of the Cretan throne.

Closer to Crete I get a more fruitful hint-taking option, but we don't entirely evade Talos. Instead, I have to engage him in missile combat, which means I can't use the sword that would give me the extra bonus. At least the armour is still effective. There's no way I can hit Talos without spending Honour I can ill-afford, but I only need to survive five rounds until we're out of range. Correction: I can only hit Talos with the help of the rule that says rolling 11 or 12 means automatic success. I'd forgotten about that, but I remembered it when setting my gamebook manager up to handle Cretan Chronicles combat, so I managed to hit him with one harpoon against all expectation. Two of Talos' thrown rocks hit me, but Seriously Wounded isn't Dead, so I live on. And Talos trips over for a bit of slapstick humour. Well, that and to allow the authors to refer to his fallen form in the section describing the approach to Crete.

That's where book 1 ends. My arrival in Crete, the Minotaur, and other related shenanigans are saved for book 2 But if I stick with the planned schedule, I won't be getting to that for a long while yet. Still, at least I have a character to carry across when I do play it.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Looking at a Whole Mess of Mist

Robin Waterfield's second FF book, Masks of Mayhem, was released without much fanfare. It came out at the same time as Titan - The Fighting Fantasy World, and the latter book seemed to get the bulk of the publicity. I got Titan before Masks, and what interested me most about MoM when I did buy it was bookmark-related. As part of a promotional campaign, assorted books published towards the end of the year had free bookmarks inside them, each bookmark containing part of a rather unimpressive story, plus one of the questions in a quiz competition with some big prize. I'd got bookmark 2 in Titan, so Masks was my opportunity to get bookmark 1 and make progress towards being able to enter the contest. It was also the source of the pictures on the two bookmarks, and that aspect of the book made more of an impression on me than the plot. I don't remember how I failed it - possibly getting eaten by a Kraken - but I definitely didn't win. Although I wasn't aware of it at the time, Masks was the most unfair FF book yet. It wouldn't hold that distinction for long, though.

My character in this book is the ruler of the insignificant kingdom of Arion, though being royalty doesn't carry much weight within the adventure. It all starts when my mildly sinister court wizard Ifor Tynin warns me that notorious sorceress Morgana is plotting world domination, using sigils to create masks which will render her Golem army indestructible. She already has eleven of the twelve masks, and unless I thwart her, she'll soon have the set, and disaster will follow. For some reason it doesn't occur to me to try and find a seasoned adventurer to deal with Morgana, so I gather together the standard FF fantasy adventure starting gear and prepare to set off.

Doomed though I am, I'll be even doomeder if I get poor stats, so I'm definitely allocating dice.
Skill 12
Stamina 15
Luck 8
I should last a little longer like that than with 8 Skill and 15 Stamina, but it won't make much difference in the end.

Before departing (alone - what kind of rubbish monarch can't even get together a few knights or soldiers for an escort when embarking on a hazardous mission of vital importance?) I pop into the armoury to get my helmet and sword. Kevin the armourer advises me to call on Hever, Lord of Fallow Dale, who owns a horn said to terrify the evil. The text has me decide to take his advice, though past attempts at the book have shown that the horn's not really worth getting, and the section ends not with a choice but with my being directed to another section. I mention the section break to set up a complaint I'll be making later on, assuming I live long enough to make it.

Nothing of note happens until I reach Lake Nekros, which is said to contain all manner of horrific creatures. Building a raft to cross it would get me killed very quickly, so I decide to detour around it through Affen Forest. As night begins to fall, I decide to make camp, and while I'm dozing, a Kraken surfaces and attempts to prey on me. My sub-par Luck isn't low enough to get me killed at this point, so I get to fight the monster. Though I'm given the option of using burning branches, as the Kraken doesn't like fire, the advantages of doing so don't really outweigh the disadvantages, especially as the stupid creature attacks one tentacle at a time. Just using my sword, I defeat the thing without taking a wound.

A spectral army then appears, but I don't have to fight it. The spirits of the Kraken's victims are now free to depart this world, but a sign of their gratitude, they'll assist me once, when I speak the name of their leader, Galrin. The ghosts of a bunch of losers that couldn't defeat a monster with Skill 6 tentacles aren't exactly the most formidable allies to have, but they're better than the nothing I've had as back-up until now.

Reluctant to spend any more time by the lake, I press on into the forest, encountering a band of Spriggans. These are an ugly offshoot of the fairy folk, who like to rob old women. The book thinks they'll make formidable foes even for me, but then only two of them attack me, they do so one at a time, and the more dangerous of the two only has 7 Skill. I've dealt with more formidable stuff while washing up.

The rest of the Spriggans flee, abandoning some of their ill-gotten gains, so I now have some money (ruler of a kingdom and I started this adventure with no cash - and when Mr. Waterfield returns to Arion in a later book, the kingdom's wealth is a big plot point, so how come I set off without a coin on me?) and a garnet ring. I spend the rest of the night in their camp, and then set off again at dawn, section number recognition prompting me to choose which path I take from the clearing.

Authorial ambiguity strikes. I must lose Stamina if I 'have not eaten during the night'. Now, since I won all my fights unscathed, I haven't felt the need to eat Provisions. But when I made camp by the lake, the book mentioned that I snacked on nuts before turning in, so does that count as having eaten for the purposes of this check? Is this a roundabout way of establishing whether or not I camped by the lake, or a hint that I'm supposed to have started consuming Provisions by now?

Regardless, I carry on again. It's a misty morning, and I start to get the impression that I'm being watched. The arrow that thuds into a tree reinforces my suspicions (and the trio of Elves in the accompanying illustration is a bit of a giveaway). I make no hostile moves, and six Wood Elves surround me and lead me to their magically concealed village. They present me to their chief and his Shaman, who are looking into an obviously magical mirror. I am asked what I'm doing here, and tell them about my quest, as it's in their interests as much as mine: I'm pretty sure that Morgana's indestructible and unstoppable Golems aren't going to be kept away from here by a little invisibility. The chief says that what they have seen in the mirror backs up my claim, and permits me to ask one question. Avoiding the option that would lead to accidentally massacring the entire village, I request more details about what they saw in the mirror. They allow me to see for myself, and the mirror shows me a vision of myself standing between two oaks, holding up a couple of items I can't quite make out. The shaman then says that they know more, but won't tell me because spoilers, and teleports me to the other side of the lake. Possibly because that's close to where I'll acquire one of the McGuffins I failed to identify when looking in the mirror, rather than on account of Elvish xenophobia.

Anyway, I'm now in hilly territory, but it's still misty. I cautiously set off - somewhere around here there's something useful, but I'm also in the vicinity of one of the most unsatisfying endings in gamebook history. Coming across a trail made by animals, I take a chance on following that, reasoning that a distinct path is less likely to lead to frustrating vagueness. Reason lets me down: I set off into the mist, and, well, something happens - nobody knows what. Not even the author, it seems. Mind you, having watched The Five Doctors on many occasions, I do have some idea of the sort of thing that can happen in mist-shrouded hills.

Oh no! It's the grassy slope of minor inconvenience!

I got further through the book in my previous online attempt, which includes a version of the rant I was setting up but never got to make here.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Should I Have Your Ship Standing By?

During the weekend I replayed the original version of Flight from the Dark, the first Lone Wolf gamebook. I still want to try and develop a character over the course of at least the first sequence of LW adventures here, but I'd rather not yet make a third attempt at the Mongoose reissue of Flight, and I didn't want to dedicate another blog entry to a book I've actually beaten, so I decided to replay book 1 'off-screen', and start the blog posts about the latest version of Lone Wolf with his second adventure, Fire on the Water. It's strangely appropriate, given that (as I previously explained) my playing the series commenced with book 2.

When replaying Flight, I slipped back into old patterns with remarkable ease. This Lone Wolf initially travelled in a somewhat counter-intuitive direction, as a result of which he was able to befriend a young magician named Banedon (much like my first Mongoose Lone Wolf did about half way through this attempt). Following a run-in with an undead pest known as a Vordak, and a brief subterranean journey during which he was attacked by an oversized burrowing insect (and would have died but for his Chainmail Waistcoat), he encountered the wounded soldier mentioned around a third of the way through this post, after which he followed more or less the exact same path described in the rest of that blog entry. Except for the bit where he managed to avoid being attacked by the Winged Serpent, and received the key to the lock on the exit from the tomb.

Anyway, he made it to the end of the adventure, and is now all set to try and acquire the magic sword needed for killing the leader of the invading forces. His stats?
Combat Skill: 14
Endurance: 21
Kai Disciplines: Hunting, Sixth Sense, Healing, Mindshield, Weaponskill (Sword), and for the 'already beaten one book' bonus, Animal Kinship, since without it I'd need to follow a very narrow path in order to have even a slim chance of surviving one particular bottleneck.

As before, I travel to the quay and meet someone claiming to be the first mate on the ship that is to take me to Holmgard, who seeks proof that I am Lone Wolf. This time I try to impress him with my fancy swordsmanship, doing a selection of flashy moves that climax with an blow that embeds a plate in the cellar door. To see how I fare against an opponent other than crockery, he sets a few thugs on me. A couple of poor rolls cause the fight to take twice as long as it did the last time I played this book, but it still ends with my attackers dead and the first mate-impersonator making a rapid departure. I note the serpent tattoo on each assailant's wrist (the Mongoose text swaps the tattoos from the left wrist to the right and specifies that the serpents depicted are writhing).

After finding the body of the real first mate, I take a coracle across to the ship, explain what happened, and meet the captain (Mongoose readers get to find out the colour of his uniform and the fruit from which the spirit he drinks is distilled, but are denied the details of his hair and beard). As on my previous attempt, the random encounter in the morning is with a damaged longboat, but this time the captain refuses to rescue the castaways. As the ship sails away from them, I have a premonition (a 'chilling' one in the Mongoose text) that a similar fate awaits me.

The arson incident happens exactly as it did last time, as does the mysterious escape of the saboteur. As before, a storm hits the ship and the mast snaps, but this time I don't get fatally crushed. The captain does. The ship breaks apart, and if I still had that Chainmail Waistcoat, I'd now have to ditch it in order to keep from sinking. A floating hatch cover becomes a makeshift raft, and I black out while hanging on to it.

Consciousness returns by mid-afternoon. I ignore the fishing boat I can see in the distance, because I know from past experience that it's crewed by rogues who'll steal the ring that serves as my credentials, with ultimately lethal consequences (unless there's a path I've missed which would enable me to retrieve it - but even if it's not a guarantee of failure, why take the risk at all?).

The shore is in sight, so I paddle to it. I've lost my weapons and the contents of my Backpack (in this instance I have no complaint about the Mongoose text's spelling things out more: while I inferred from the original phrasing that I kept the Backpack but not what was in it, it wasn't as clear as it could have been). I'm hungry, and as Meals are Backpack items, I have no food on me, but Hunting lets me know that the fruit on a nearby tree isn't toxic. The Mongoose text rearranges the options in this section, putting the Discipline check first rather than last, which is sensible, and plays up the unappealing appearance of the tree when offering readers who didn't pick Hunting the choice of whether or not to risk eating.

Close by is a road running east-west. I can't think of any good reason not to go in the direction I was heading on the ship. The rest of my day is uneventful, and I spend the night up a tree in case the tales I've heard of wild dogs that prowl by night are true.

It's a cold and wet morning, but I can see a wagon heading my way. This is another point at which the revised text is an improvement, eliminating a grammatical absurdity: the Mongoose text says 'the approaching wagon' rather than the original version's ill-placed 'it' that effectively gives me a choice between trying to flag the tree down and attempting to jump onto the tree as it passes below the branch I'm on. I pick the less dramatic approach, not wishing to be taken for a highwayman, and a single gold coin allows me to travel to Ragadorn on the wagon roof.

Along the way, I chat with the driver, who tells me that Ragadorn's current ruler has turned the place into something like Fighting Fantasy's Port Blacksand. It's gone noon when we arrive, and the driver lets me know that a coach to Durenor, where I actually need to go, leaves from the east gate at one o'clock. I reach a junction, and note that the names of the streets heading north and south vary in the different editions of the book. But I want to go east, and as the road heading that way is called Axe Lane, I figure that it might even provide me with an opportunity to buy a replacement for my lost sword.

No weapon shops, and after a bit the street turns north. There's soon a turning east along Sage Street, though, and that does have a shop where I can rearm myself. I could also buy a blanket, but I need to save a bit of money to avoid being assassinated later on, so the sword will do for now. Not long after that I reach the stable and coach station, and see a sign advertising the coach to Port Bax, in Durenor. The fare's not cheap, but the money pouch I grabbed from the insect in book 1 (don't ask) contained the precise sum, and I was given some more money at the start of this book, so I can afford the ticket and still have a bit left over for staying unmurdered.

After buying my Ticket, I board the coach and doze off. When I wake again, the journey has commenced and there are an additional five passengers. A random encounter has the coach stop at a shrine where clumps of the medicinal herb Laumspur are growing, so I pick some. Slightly oddly, the text doesn't specify what the herb's properties are unless the reader picks some - not even for a character with Hunting, which served to identify that other nutritional plant. I knew it was worth getting because practically every healing potion in every Lone Wolf book is Laumspur-based, but a newcomer to the series wouldn't have a clue whether they were being invited to acquire something medicinal, a bit of seasoning for the stew pot, or even a deadly poison.

On the next leg of the journey I get to know my fellow passengers. There are two brothers, both Knights of the White Mountain (sort of equivalent to the Mounties), a heavily bruised merchant who lost almost everything he owns thanks to a disagreement with the authorities in Ragadorn, a priest from Sommerlund, and a mercenary fighter on her way home from a completed mission. The illustrations of the five of them in the original text make one of them look particularly sinister.

Towards dusk the wagon stops at an inn, and the coach driver checks my ticket. This is where not having money for a room would result in my being murdered in my sleep by a secretly EVIL fellow passenger. There's also some stuff about the lack of food sources in the wilderness through which we are passing, which will prevent me from using Hunting to find Meals until further notice.

For the next couple of days, nothing of note happens (not even any Meal checks, making it a bit odd that the text pointed out my need to be carrying food for when I'd next have to eat), but on day 9 of my journey (almost a quarter of the way to my deadline), there's an 'accident'. The road ahead is blocked by fallen rocks, and while I'm helping the driver clear the way, a falling boulder squashes him. My Sixth Sense tells me that there's someone up on the cliff, and they were trying to hit me.

My fellow passengers and I bury the coachman's remains. The priest hopes that we won't be held responsible for the death, and one of the Knights declares it an act of the gods. He must believe that, as his kind are oath-bound to tell the truth at all times, but as I know that the incident was only an accident insofar as the driver wasn't the intended target of the boulder, I'm aware that what he's saying isn't strictly true. Unless it was a bunch of Magnamund's deities up on the cliff, which strikes me as unlikely.

We proceed to the village of Gorn Cove. Yes, some of its occupants are a bit reptilian. I still have enough money for a room at the inn, though if I'd run out of cash at our last stop, I'd have two opportunities to get some cash here, and if I ignored both of them, the priest would pay for me.

I go up to my room, and after a while the innkeeper brings me a plate of food, paid for by one of my fellow-passengers. There's a Meal check here, but my Discipline of Hunting alerts me to the poison on the plate and tray, and the text has me storm downstairs to seek a confrontation with the would-be assassin. Presumably losing 3 Endurance for hunger just before I get into a big fight, which isn't exactly smart of me. But then, 'smart' isn't really on the menu here as, rather than asking the innkeeper who bought me the food, I just stomp up to the others from the wagon, who are conveniently gathered around one table, and choose which one to attack. To be fair, there is a clue provided in the accompanying illustration (and it's a lot more noticeable in the Mongoose edition (as well as being where the subsequent mention in the text says it should be, rather than on the wrong arm as in the original book)) but the first time I got this far through the adventure, I just went for the most suspicious-seeming of the lot. And I was right.

The fellow traveller I single out draws a black sword (oh, what a giveaway!) and manages to inflict a couple of very minor grazes on me in the course of being gutted. A quick search of the body provides more than ample proof that this was the villain: the remnants of the vial of poison used on that food, a scroll written in Giak, warning that I'll be heading for Port Bax (if I can understand Giak, why couldn't I make sense of what the leader of the Giaks attacking Banedon yelled at me in book 1?), that sword, made of the black steel that can only be manufactured in the EVIL foundries of Darklord city Helgedad, a tattoo just like those which adorned the corpses of my assailants back at the start of the adventure, and 23 gold coins in a pouch (okay, that last thing's not really evidence of evil intent).

One thing that's a little off about this book is that events from this point onwards would happen exactly the same way even if I'd chosen the wrong person. All right, so the others are tougher opponents or have less money (or both), but killing an innocent and leaving the assassin at large should have more consequences than just that. Heck, two of the wrong options don't even have a post-fight 'you killed someone who didn't deserve it, and should feel bad' section.

Funnily enough, the others at the table (and in the inn, for that matter), seem to object to what I've just done, accusing me of murder and calling for the town guard. Hey, people, did you not see my opponent's black sword of EVILness? But nobody appears willing to listen to explanations, and as I'd rather not attack representatives of the forces of law and order who are only doing their job (especially when they outnumber me six to one), I need to be elsewhere. Fast.

Dashing out of the rear exit, I 'borrow' a horse from outside a wheelwright's shop, and ride away before any kind of pursuit can be organised. By dawn I reach the edge of the forest that marks the Durenese border, and regain the ability to catch my own food. Riding on, I reach a fork in the road, but a quick look at the map in the front of the book makes it obvious which turning to take.

I was an idiot in the 1990s. Taking the correct turning provides an opportunity to have the only encounter that makes this book survivable without Animal Kinship, and I don't remember ever finding that encounter when repeatedly trying to play through books 1-12 with one character. But that encounter includes a tough fight (in which my Weaponskill won't help), and merely provides an item that will make it possible to have another tough fight rather than getting Instant Deathed, whereas using Animal Kinship helps me miss both combats (at the cost of all my money, but that's a small price to pay), so I think I'll just ignore the cries for help. Oddly, the Mongoose text makes it sound as if I'm hearing multiple voices, whereas it's just the one in the original.

Anyway, I ride on, and the horse arbitrarily throws me and runs off. Continuing on foot, I reach a wooden tower with a border guard on duty in it. Sixth Sense tells me that he's loyal and proud of it, so I show him the Seal. He's not happy to see it, aware that my having it signifies impending disaster (the Mongoose text makes a small but significant improvement to the wording of this section, removing the implication that there are several formerly Durenese treasures that the kingdom's people were glad to see the back of), and tells me the quickest route to Port Bax.

I reach the city at around dusk, and find that the City Hall is still open. In there I get directions to the Sommlending Consulate and instructions of how to acquire the pass required to get me into the restricted area where it's situated. Following those instructions takes me to the office of a naval officer, who notes that I must have urgent business to be applying for a pass this late in the day, and asks to see the appropriate documentation. I don't have the papers he requests (and a fun surprise awaits anyone who does), so I present him with the Seal instead. Well, that's his evening ruined.

He takes me to his captain, whom I tell of the war in Sommerlund, and I get the pass I need. I take that to the red gate through which I must go, and the guards let me past. At the Consulate I'm taken to the envoy, a Lord-lieutenant Rhygar who managed not to get killed at the end of a tiresome chase. Funnily enough, the account of his achievements in the Mongoose book doesn't mention the events of the mini-adventure. Nor does the one in the original text, but it's more understandable there, as The Crown of King Alin IV hadn't been written when it came out.

The following morning I set off on the last leg of my outward journey, the ride to Durenese capital city Hammerdal. Now confident of success, I trigger a smugness-activated Random Unpleasantness Generator, and three days into this journey, six cloaked strangers barge into our camp. Rhygar demands an explanation, and they all draw black swords. Sixth Sense tells me that the men are actually disguised Helghast, undead minions of the Darklords (so why wouldn't it have warned me about the 'man' in the encounter I evaded back in the forest?), and as I don't (yet) have a weapon that could harm them, I beat a strategic retreat, yelling a warning to Rhygar.

As I run, I stumble over an unexpected drop. Oh, joy, it's another 1 in 10 shot at a pointless death. As on the ship, the odds work out in my favour, and I am merely stunned. Rhygar helps me up, and we hurry on while the Helghast are occupied massacring his soldiers.

Six hours later we reach the mouth of the Tarnalin tunnel, which leads under the mountains to Hammerdal. Rhygar insists on staying here to delay the pursuing Helghast while I go through the tunnel, and at this point the two versions of the book make a significant and nasty divergence. If I have a magic weapon (essential for killing Helghast), I must choose whether to keep it or give it to Rhygar. In the original text, giving him the weapon (if you have it) guarantees failure, as it results in missing the only way of evading the Helghast ambush in the tunnel, and as you gave away the magic weapon, you can't fight your attacker. In the Mongoose version, not giving Rhygar the weapon means missing the alternative to the Helghast encounter. So in the newer version of the adventure, it is essential to take the correct turning after Gorn Cove and then make the slightly counter-intuitive decision that leads to the difficult fight I skipped. While I can see some sort of merit in making Rhygar's suicidal last stand a little less futile, I'm not keen on the increased narrowness of the True Path that results from this change, especially when that path includes a fight against something with a Combat Skill above 20.

No more observations on the Mongoose edition, then, as I'd be on the verge of losing my throat if I were playing that book. So I enter the tunnel, noting with some concern that it's more deserted than it should be. After around half an hour I spot a two-foot-tall rodent with a spear and a jacket atop an abandoned wagon. Scenting me, it scurries away into a small side tunnel. I recognise it as a Noodnic. These creatures are native to the mountains, and live off what they can pilfer from the caravans that pass through the tunnels. This being their home territory, they may be aware of any Helghast presence, so I follow the Noodnic to the cavern where the colony lives. Their leader orders them to drive me out, but when I address them in their own language, they become willing to talk. He lets me know that there are a couple of 'Blackscreamerz', as they refer to the Helghast, in the tunnels, and offers to show me a route that will bypass them. A female Noodnic gives me two Meals' worth of food, and one of the not-so-little rodents covertly pilfers my money, but at least I avoid otherwise certain death.

Around three miles on, I see a barricade across the tunnel. Ten soldiers advance, and I'm not so stupid as to attack them. When I explain my mission and show the Seal, the knight leading them sends me to Hammerdal in a horse-drawn carriage. I need to eat again on the way, and while the text doesn't say I can't use Hunting to find food while being rushed through a subterranean tunnel in a carriage, the idea of subsisting on the chewing gum stuck under the seats by former passengers is off-putting enough that I eat some of what the Noodnic gave me.

On the morning of day 15 I reach Hammerdal. I'm taken to see the King, and give him the Seal. In return, he unlocks the container which holds the Sommerswerd, the golden sword I've come all this way to claim. I take the sword, and my Sixth Sense tells me much about it. Indeed, it would appear that if I didn't have Sixth Sense, I wouldn't know about the 8-point Combat Skill bonus that comes with the sword, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

It takes two weeks to prepare the fleet for a voyage to Sommerlund. During this time I'd get all lost Endurance healed if I weren't already at full health, and I get given a Laumspur potion and told of the discovery of Rhygar's corpse. My Sixth Sense, enhanced by the Sommerswerd, tells me what the news is before I hear it (and my knowledge that he voluntarily chose to confront half a dozen undead killers while unable to harm them at all told me that he was dead some time before that).

Finally, on the thirty-third day of my mission, the Durenese fleet leaves Port Bax, with me as a passenger. Random stormy weather leaves many of the troops aboard too ill to fight, but after a few days the weather improves and the situation deteriorates. Out of a fog bank comes a fleet of death-hulks, magically raised sunken ships with undead crews. The death-hulk flagship holes the ship I'm on, and the order to abandon ship is given. Would leaping onto the death-hulk be epic heroism or insane suicide? I'd rather not risk it being the latter option after having got this far through the book, so I dive into the sea and head for another Durenese vessel.

By the time I'm aboard, it's been grappled by a death-hulk, and the crew are being butchered by zombies. I draw the Sommerswerd and take out half a dozen of the rotters with one blow. If I didn't have Sixth Sense, this would be the first time I found out that the sword does double damage to the undead. Encouraged by my victory, the Durenese survivors join me in boarding the hulk, and we chop up zombies until a Helghast intervenes. I slice that up, too.

I'm getting a strange sense of déjà vu, and then a voice calls my name from behind. I turn to behold an unwelcome sight: the reanimated cadaver of the captain I last saw getting flattened by a falling mast. This hulk is the ship on which I set out. The zombie captain tells me that his soul will be released from its torment if I put down my sword, so I put it down. Down his gizzard! The rest of the (equally undead) crew surround me, so I grab a rope to Douglas Fairbanks across to a Durenese ship. But the rope has been damaged, and snaps, randomness determining that I land... on the deck of the ship I was trying to reach. (Morbid curiosity had me check the alternate outcome, which is landing in the sea, being seized by a Kraan, stabbing it as it tries to bear me away, and getting dropped onto the same ship I'd have reached by rolling higher. Neat joke.)

By now the Durenese fleet is prevailing, and the death-hulk flagship is ablaze and sinking. And, of course, when the flagship sinks down deep, all its fleet sinks down deep too. The remaining five sevenths of the Durenese fleet carry on towards Holmgard, arriving late on day thirty-seven. The city hasn't yet fallen, but it's in a pretty sorry state. The locals initially take us for enemy reinforcements, but once they realise that we're allies, they get a lot more hopeful.

I ascend the great watchtower and wait for dawn. The creeping daylight reveals the massive scale of the enemy army, with the red tent of Darklord Zagarna in the middle. As a shaft of sunlight hits the Sommerswerd, flames form on the blade, and I need only point it at the red tent to turn those flames into a beam of destructive power that atomises Zagarna before he's even finished his breakfast. His troops are routed, and the Durenese troops massacre plenty of them as they go. Sommerlund is safe again. At least until I have another go at book 3.

Friday, 21 June 2013

There's Been a Thing

Undeterred by unsuccessful attempts at the first two of Smith & Thomson's Falcon books, I'm moving on to the third one, The Rack of Baal. My copy of this book was one of the three I got in one go at the Book Exchange, and as I wasn't prepared to leave it unread until I'd managed to acquire a copy of book 2, I wound up encountering some pretty major spoilers about twists in the book I was missing. Spoilers that I shan't repeat here, because I'm planning on replaying the first two books here at some point.

The ongoing plot regarding renegade TIME Agent Agidy Yelov goes on the back-burner in this adventure, as Falcon's expertise is required for dealing with a more pressing matter. Psychics investigating an artificial asteroid created by a long-dead race discovered it to be the prison of a powerful evil being named Baal. Unfortunately for them, they discovered it by falling under his control and being compelled to ram the asteroid with a starship in order to weaken it enough that he could escape. He can travel through time at will and, being unable to destroy the device which had inhibited his powers (except, apparently, for the 'dominate the wills of curious psychics' one, which his captors really should have done something about) and kept him in the prison asteroid, has scattered its four components throughout space and time. Conveniently, artefacts of such power are liable to cause timeholes to spontaneously form in their general spatio-temporal vicinity, so I just need to find them, reassemble the Rack (as the device is called) and use it to reimprison Baal. Let's hope that this Falcon is luckier than the alternate versions from my attempts at the first two books.

I board my ship and speak with CAIN (the shipboard computer, in case you'd forgotten/not read the book 1 playthrough), who seems to have a bit of an attitude problem, making derogatory comments about organic life forms and boasting about its superiority to all other computers. Then it gets to the point, mentioning the four locations where disturbances have been noted. The first time I played, I chose to visit the Aztecs because Id enjoyed looking into their culture in history lessons. Now I know that it's probably best to start by visiting the Dustbowl Colony in 2764.

One aspect of the first four Falcon books I have yet to mention is the optional scoring system. At various points, the text says to note down a letter. The subsequent book assigns point values (positive and negative) to those numbers, and gives a table of rankings based on the number of points obtained. I remember reading somewhere that it's not actually possible to get enough points for the top rank in books 1-2. As I recall, it is achievable in this book, but only by making every decision that provides a positive point (and none that get a negative), and as some of those positives are found in the red herring locations, and I'd rather not take unnecessary risks just for the sake of an essentially irrelevant ranking, so I shan't be bothering with any of that.

The Dustbowl Colony occupies a large crater, the only part of an otherwise lifeless planet that holds an atmosphere. It was originally founded by a group of exiles from another colony, becoming prosperous when the only native life form, the Dustwhale, turned out to be a source of one ingredient of life-prolonging drugs. The human-sacrificing religion to which most of the founding exiles belonged has all but died out, and the colony is generally considered a boring place. Guess how likely I am to have a dull time that doesn't involve fanatical cultists...

My Rack component detector (a product of the same technology that created the Rack) registers nothing, but it can't scan beyond the protective dome over Refuge, Dustbowl's only city, so I'm going to have to go out onto the Sea of Dust if I want to be thorough. While I'm being kitted out to blend in with the locals, a black-robed man scans my ship, using technology more advanced than should exist in this era. Ominous, but following him may lead me into a trap, so I'll just get on with my trip to the Sea.

I take public transport to the port, where I'm able to scan the Sea. No Rack components. So I head back to the ship. The black-robed man is back, with some friends, and they appear to be selling souvenir daggers, though their attempts to demonstrate the sharpness of the blades by using them on me do take the hard sell that bit too far. I trip three of them, but the fourth manages to cut my shoulder, yelling, 'Die, in the name of Baal!' A quick psionic blast fells him, and I hurry into the warehouse where my ship is concealed.

A twelve-foot long fly buzzes into the warehouse and tells me that Baal wants me dead (I had already gathered that). I try another psionic blast, but it's ineffective. My blaster works, though. Good thing, too: I've already had one fly-related gamebook fatality this week. Hurrying into the ship before the black-robed mob can start hassling me again, I head back to home base to see if any more leads have turned up. Along the way, I can get some healing done, which would be most welcome if the book had listed any Endurance point cost for the knife in the shoulder.

When I get back, Agent Bloodhound informs me that there's just been a massive temporal disturbance on Dustbowl, which didn't involve any conventional time machine. Time to choose the next place to visit, and returning to Dustbowl is an option. One of the other locations mentioned in section 1 is no longer on the list, though a couple of words from it have been appended to one of the remaining options. Looks like an editorial blunder.

Anyway, I go back to Dustbowl. This time I materialise at the port, and when I set up the detector again, it registers the presence of part of the Rack. That's the good news. Less pleasing is the detail of its location: somewhere out in the sea, buried under tons of dust. After consulting with CAIN and my boss, I wind up disguising my Time Machine as a diving bell and impersonating one of David Attenborough's descendants in order to legitimise a diving expedition. I'm also warned that there are some pretty stringent rules about carrying weapons in this-era Dustbowl. Noted, but I may have to become a little bit flexible as regards my law-abiding status if I encounter any more of those giant flies.

There's a whaling ship moored at the quayside. It's called 'The Winged Demon', and flies a black flag. Subtle. I pop into the closest bar, and hear one of the patrons waxing eloquent about his most recent voyage, which just happened to be aboard the Winged Demon. Standard sailors' tall tales, except for the bit where the regular crew turned out to be Baal-worshipping cultists who met the bad guy himself and sacrificed a few of the hired hands to him. Yeah, I think I'll wait for a different whaler to dock, and book passage on that one.

The following day I head out again to see if a better ship is available. The Winged Demon has gone, but a few of the black-robed pests are waiting for me, knives drawn. I try a little mind control of my own, making one of the would-be assassins turn on his comrades. Not very nice, but I can't use my blaster without risking trouble with the authorities, and the psionic blast would only work on the fanatics one at a time, giving some of them an opportunity to use their daggers on me.

Another whaler, the Dustskate, has moored since my last visit. I make the necessary arrangements to have it transport my 'scientific expedition', and get my 'diving bell' loaded aboard. Some of the crew give me funny looks, so I'd better be careful, in case Baal has any more subtle minions. He does. Though 'more subtle' turns out to mean 'breaking into my cabin after dark in order to knife me. I try the same trick as before, and get him to attack the two accomplices the book neglected to mention when it told me about him. This time there are no fatalities, as I'm able to summon help from the rest of the crew, and the three cultists wind up in the brig.

The following day, the Dustskate reaches the right location, and I make the dive. On the way down, CAIN tells me all about the sonar-based senses of the creatures that live in the Sea of Dust. All just colour text, I'm sure. My battlesuit is just able to bear the dust pressure down there, so I pop out to collect the Rack component. As I'm heading back to my ship, my radar registers something approaching. The sort of something that gets the title rôle in SyFy monster movies. Head of a shark, body of a Dune-scale sandworm, and at least seven tentacles, according to the illustration. I hurriedly download a track from Pavarotti's thrash metal phase and broadcast it at the approaching monstrosity, confusing the creature's sound-based prey detection system long enough for me to get back to my Time Machine.

I then sever the cable attached to the'diving bell', making it appear to the people up above that I must have died in a freak bathysphering accident. The Captain will be wishing he'd asked for full payment up front, rather than just under a third in advance and the rest on completion. Back inside the Time Machine, I observe that the Rack component has triangle shapes on it, and dematerialise. One piece down, three to go.

The list of times and places to visit next lacks the red herrings that were originally offered, so I've missed my opportunity to have a cameo appearance by Yelov in the adventure. I'll move straight on to the next relevant location, which is Aztec Earth. Hey, I never said that that was a red herring - it just so happens that I'm better off waiting until I have the first Rack part before I go there. Makes for a rather counter-intuitive optimal route through the adventure: first I need to go somewhere that doesn't have part of the Rack (and I think pre-Rack Dustbowl is the best of those options, even with the cultists and the giant fly), then back to HQ, then to Dustbowl again, and only then to the Aztec Empire, which has been on the menu since section 1.

Anyway, Falcon's Wing (that's the name of my craft) arrives in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan during the reign of the tyrant Ahuitzotl, a particularly violent period in their history. The book asks an awkward question about how many timeholes I've visited on this mission. Does the return trip to HQ count? Is Dustbowl to be considered as one timehole visit or two? Peeking at the sections for 'first-to-second trip' and 'third trip or later', I get the impression that this constitutes 'third or later', as one of the differences in the text is that I get to decide whether to keep the Rack component on me or leave it in the ship. Better to keep it with me, I think.

There's a second Rack component in a building near the Great Pyramid. Dressed in the costume of an Aztec Eagle Knight, I head for the pyramid and see the Emperor and a number of black-robed priests, who are extremely busy sacrificing prisoners to Huitzilopochtli. Baal manifests himself above the altar, and is assumed by the Aztecs to be the deity in question. The priests pick up their pace, and I realise that Baal is feeding off the life force of the sacrificial victims. The Rack part I have reacts to his presence, but he doesn't notice it.

There's nothing good to be gained by attracting his attention at this time, so I do my best to ignore what's going on, and concentrate on seeking the Rack component that's here. The building containing it is guarded, but Jaguar Knights have no defence against psionic blasts, and are unconscious by the time I reach the entrance.

That is not the correct section number. The editing on this book is a bit sloppy in places. A quick check via the 'first or second trip' path indicates that I should be turning to 311, not 331. That takes me to a large room containing an altar, with the Rack component on it, and I can see that this one has circles on it. The floor between me and the altar has a 3-by-3 grid of Tiles of Doom on it. I try the middle tile of the first row, and nothing happens. Diagonally right... is not so good. Something clicks above me, so I jump to one side, and the obsidian-tipped spear I just triggered misses me. And back to the middle for the final row - no, that's a bad choice too. This time the click is below me, and I leap forward to avoid being impaled on the wooden stake that springs up.

I'm at the altar. As I reach for the Rack component, Baal registers my presence, and he's not happy about it, judging by the way he's trying to smash through the ceiling. I grab the component, and he breaks through and lands on one of the tiles I avoided. This triggers a volley of javelins, which shatter on impact with Baal's skin. He tries to take over my mind, but my having two bits of the Rack disrupts the attack (so the complete Rack failed to keep him from controlling the psychic archaeologists because...?). They're less useful against fireballs, though, as I learn when Baal flings one at me. A pencilled-in amendment to the section numbers for outcomes to the impending Evasion Roll suggests that this is another editorial black spot. Yep, the 'successful roll' number leads to having a third of my Endurance singed away, while the 'clumsy oaf' one has me unscathed. I succeeded at the roll, so I'm going with my corrected version of the book. And yes, I'd have taken the hit if I'd rolled badly.

Baal is displeased to see me still alive. I'm guessing that the recent appearance above the Great Pyramid of a 20-foot high red-skinned monstrosity means that there's little point in avoiding displays of anachronistic technology, so I decide to see if a shot from my blaster will distract him while I dash back to Falcon's Wing. It only causes him a little pain and throws him off balance (a human subjected to the same blast would be charcoal), but that's better than nothing, and I leg it while I can.

By now the plaza is almost deserted. Baal smashes back through the roof (couldn't even be bothered to reuse the hole through which he entered) and flies towards me. My blaster pack is half drained, but that still gives me power for one more shot, right? Indeed. It's on target, and temporarily floors him. The few onlookers now think I'm a deity as well. No time to correct their misunderstanding, though, as Baal is picking himself up again and my blaster needs a recharge.

A few black-robed nutters attempt to get in my way, but they know nothing of the hologram that conceals Falcon's Wing, and do a double-take when I seemingly walk through a wall. I hurriedly board Falcon's Wing, and dematerialise just as Baal fireballs the ship. It's not damaged badly enough to keep me from making it back home, but some repairs are required. On the way, CAIN reassures me that disruption to established history will be negligible as Cortez is due to genocide the Aztecs in a few decades' time anyway.

The directions here are a bit badly structured: where I turn next depends on which of two conditions is true, but both are. I go for the one listed first, and things do follow on logically, but it's still an awkward means of establishing how much I've already achieved, especially as the next section offers me the option of going to Dustbowl post-disturbance, which is the sort of redundancy that this kind of filtering ought to eliminate.

Getting back to the point, a new timehole has formed on the planet Cave, and the rookie who was sent to set up a monitoring device didn't survive the trip. Odd things are suddenly having happened in the past. Could be worth looking into. Has to be, in fact, as it's that or Dustbowl again.

While in Falcon's present day, Cave has an advanced society, its inhabitants are very primitive at the time to which I'm travelling. They live in underground tunnels, divided into complexes. It's a vaguely hive-like set-up, with Mothers ruling over Workers, Warriors and Nobles. Falcon's Wing materialises in a cavern where a score or so Burrowers are excavating tunnels. These are furry bipeds with two pairs of specialised arms: one clawed, to dig, the other with hands to pick up and carry debris. The atmosphere is not breathable for humans, and there's no way of convincingly disguising me as a local, so I'd better keep a low profile, as the Cavers are currently very xenophobic. And this particular period is unique in Caver history for featuring a civil war.

The Burrowers' light-sensitive eyes register my use of the Rack component detector, but Workers aren't sapient enough to recognise me as an outsider, so I needn't worry about them. There is a component here, so I'm going to have to find it. The sound of battle catches my attention, and I cautiously investigate. Two Warrior groups are fighting: red-furred versus black-and-yellow-striped. Only two arms each, but they end in blades of bone. Add in the assortment of horns, the taloned feet and the fangs, and these are not a sub-species I want taking an interest in me. A few roughly human-shaped Nobles direct the hostilities, and the red-furred ones help sway the course of the battle with lasers that shouldn't exist at this time.

The yellow-and-black Nobles retreat, getting Burrowers to block off the tunnel behind them. The red Nobles decide to fetch some of their own Burrowers, and send their Warriors to secure a nearby cavern and work towards the victory of the Baal-Mother. Not much of a guy for aliases, is the villain?

Some of the Warriors enter the corridor where I am. Let's see if they're as easy to turn on one another as the Dustbowlers. Indeed. Within seconds only one of them is still standing (well, limping), and a quick burst from my recharged blaster puts it out of its misery. I feel less bad about what I just did when I reach the cavern containing the remnants of a batch of Caver eggs, ruthlessly destroyed by the red-furred lot. Beyond that cavern is a fungus farm, and further on I encounter more fighting. While the striped Cavers have the better strategy, the reds' lasers are proving too much of an advantage. I don't think intervening would do enough good to offset the disadvantages of attracting attention, so I slip down a side tunnel.

The passage forks, and I can see light some way down the left tunnel. Could it be the glow of a bit of Rack? No, there's a hole in the roof, letting in the harsh light and radiation of the sun. Best not to loiter here. Moving on, I eventually reach the heart of the Caver rebellion, where several Nobles are consulting with the Baal-Mother, expressing concern at 'her' not yet having laid any reinforcements for them. Of more interest to me is the not-of-this-time machinery, and the massive metal door behind which I sense the Rack part I seek.

At this point, if I didn't have the piece of Rack from Tenochtitlan, I would automatically fail. And if I didn't have the one from Dustbowl, I'd be open to a potentially lethal mental attack. As it is, while Baal detects my presence and sets the Cavers on me, the Rack parts I carry suddenly activate and cancel out the hallucinatory mind-powers that had enabled him to impersonate a Mother. Suddenly realising that they've been duped, the Nobles call off the attack and try to decide what to do. I dash for the door, and Baal shoots a bolt of energy at me. Sooner or later I was bound to fail a roll, and this time I do, getting quite badly hurt. At least the next time I have the option of using my Autodoc, I'll be able to avail myself of it. Assuming I live that long.

The Nobles set the Warriors on Baal. They can't harm him, but they keep him occupied while I hobble over to the door. There's no obvious way of opening it, and I don't have either of the devices that could be of use here, so I'll have to use my blaster. I target the wall next to the door, burning a hole through it, but as I move towards it, Baal wins the fight and fires another bolt of energy at me. I dodge that one, leaping through the hole and grabbing the Rack component, which has squares on it. Another editorial blunder would send me back to being hit by the bolt I didn't evade, but at some point in the past I added the missing digit to the given section number, and thus avoid getting time-looped.

I start to make my getaway. Baal grabs a dead Warrior to throw at me, so I try reminding him of how unpleasant he finds being shot. Pity I used up so much of my power-pack getting through the wall. Luckily, none of the dead Warrior's sharp bits hit me, but I'm still injured again. Baal picks up another corpse, and I mess up another Evasion Roll. At this point further red-furred Warriors attack their deceiver (and an inventory check leads me to suspect that these are the ones I'd have massacred if I'd decided to assist the stripey mob, in which case it's definitely a good thing I didn't stick my nose in), and I take the opportunity to absent myself while I still have a quarter of my Endurance points.

By the time I reach the cavern containing Falcon's Wing, Baal has slain his erstwhile dupes and come flying after me. He carries a girder, which he hurls at me, but this time I manage to dodge, and my experiences here have given me enough practice that I get a bonus on future Evasion Rolls. Before he can try any more tricks, I make a rapid exit from Cave. CAIN speculates on the long-term goals of the plan I've just thwarted, and the three Rack components project the space-time coordinates of the missing piece into my mind. I get to heal 80% of my lost Endurance as I pilot Falcon's Wing to the planet Chill in 2985 AD. Just under half a century before Falcon's home time.

Chill is, as the name suggests, a cold planet. Its atmosphere is ammonia-based, but the planet itself is rich in minerals, and there's a largely automated mining station there to take advantage of that. CAIN claims that 2985 is 'only forty years ago' from 3033, which throws into doubt its earlier claims of superiority. Perhaps more pertinently, it also points out that the Manager of the small human workforce here is Braxton Bragg (which seems to be some kind of early UK gamebook-writers' in-joke, given that there's a character with the exact same name in the RPG scenario written by Jon Sutherland, Nigel Cross (sic.) and Simon Farrell for the first issue of GM magazine), the brother of one of my grandmothers, and a good friend of the associated grandfather. But I'd only confuse him if I actually addressed him as great-uncle.

My battlesuit is redesigned to make me look like a Federation Planetary Exploration Scout, so I can pretend to have crash-landed if I should encounter the humans. Once I've used the Rack detector to get a bearing on the last part, I set off through the driving hail. It turns out that the component is some way below the mining station, so I have to head there. One of the staff is outside in a powersuit, and is understandably surprised to see me. He invites me inside, introduces himself as Sil McReady, and uses the slang term 'ultra' often enough that this mannerism soon becomes ultra-annoying.

In the Rec Room he introduces me to two more of the crew: Bragg himself and medical expert Tsu Tsang, who currently walks with a limp on account of having had her foot broken in a minor industrial accident. I also see a holo-viewer, clearly labelled as the property of Kepy Achov, and currently paused part of the way through Night of the Star-Vampires. Tsu Tsang takes me to a spare cabin, and then McReady turns up to give me a tour of the place, with running commentary on how ultra or non-ultra he finds the different sections. In Mine Control I meet the other crew, and discover that not everyone here is human. Achov is a Siriun, and the seven-foot-tall Caleb is from Proxima Centauri.

Back in my cabin, I'm wondering how I can minimise temporal disruption when I hear a commotion. For the crew, this is the second unexpected development in one day: the Autodrill opened up a subterranean cavern which contained a strange football-sized egg and a piece of alien technology - the last piece of the Rack. Achov anticipates that the Federation will pay a lot for these discoveries (which McReady thinks is 'really ultra'). As Achov takes his finds to the lab, Bragg comments on what a coincidence it is that I should have turned up at this time, rather obviously assuming that I'm some kind of undercover operative for the Federation. At least the team will have a target for their anger when I sneak into the lab later tonight and pilfer one of their treasures.

After dark I put my plan into action. Achov is still awake, and I hear what sounds like a distant shriek and an odd squelching as I pass his door. Proceeding into the lab, I am unable to find the Rack segment, but I do spot the egg. Which has split open, and is dripping goo onto the floor. A sound from the doorway alerts me to the presence of Tsu Tsang, who has a disconcerting posture. A roll of the die determines what happens next...

Tentacles erupt from her chest, and two scorpion's tail-like appendages emerge from her mouth. It's a good deal more graphic in the text. I fail my Will roll, and just gape at this revolting spectacle until a tentacle slaps me half way across the lab. The monstrosity's head collapses into a gaping maw, and I decide that my blaster is going to be of more use here than powers of the mind. Thankfully, my shot is on target, and the superheated plasma causes the creature to burst into flames. A leg comes off, sprouts limbs of its own, and begins scuttling away, the foot turning into a crocodile-style head as it goes.

At this point, alerted by the noise, the rest of the crew enter the lab, and they don't like what they see. McReady throws up. The crocodile-headed insectoid that was a leg leaps at me, but Bragg lasers it in half. One of the parts sprouts a tentacle in order to rejoin its mate, and as Bragg gapes, doubtless thinking, "You have got to be ****ing kidding!", I incinerate it. So much for a low-key retrieval of the last component.

As the questions and strategising commence, a sloppily constructed sentence attributes one line of dialogue to both Caleb and me. Bragg speculates on the nature of the creature that emerged from the egg, pointing out that other parts of it may still be at large, and it may already have duplicated more of the crew. On the more positive side, my having been attacked convinces everyone that I'm still human, and at least we know that we can kill it with fire.

Bragg orders McReady to radio for some troopers and a relief ship, and sends Achov to get the flamethrowers they use to de-ice the protective dome. Yes, this does involve splitting up. But Bragg, Caleb and I head to the Rec Room together, so nothing bad happens to us. Achov arrives with the flamethrowers, and Caleb takes the one that he personalised. McReady arrives with bad news: the creature already got to the radio and wrecked it. I shoot him, because he didn't call it 'non-ultra news', and his head splits open to reveal something unpleasant. An orifice opens in his neck and spews fluid at me, but I dodge with ease. Good thing too, as the liquid is acidic. I return fire, but the faux-McReady smashes through the door and flees.

The rest of us decide to go on the offensive. All the powersuits have been sabotaged, robbing us of potential protection. Evidently having learned nothing, Bragg has us split up, which does at least give me an opportunity to set up the Rack detector again. The component's been taken back to the cavern, so I'm going to have to disobey instructions and descend into the mine.

I take the lift down to the lowest level, then ride a monorail to the cavern, where I find the fourth component on an altar. Back at the bottom of the shaft, I hear a noise from inside a titanium container. Out bursts a mass of tentacles, topped with McReady's head. Then a serpentine neck issues forth, with a head like something out of Alien on the end, and lunges at me. Again I am paralysed with fear long enough for the creature to attack, and this time it manages to absorb my foot, getting it to spawn barbed tendrils that spring up and pierce my heart. You know, I was only about 14 when I got this book.

Thinking about it, the gruesome elements are probably a big part of why this wound up being one of my favourite books in the series. While the various editorial errors I've enumerated do rather mar the end product, I still find it pretty enjoyable now. Not a very profound adventure, but pulpy (and slimy, and gooey, and ichorous) fun.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

All the Electric Vapor of My Knowledge

I must have bought issue 12 of Warlock in the newsagent's on Silverdale Road. I remember still being on my way to school when I reached the kitten-rescuing encounter in the mini-adventure, Gavin Shute's sequel to Appointment With F.E.A.R., entitled Deadline to Destruction, and I couldn't have got that far that soon if I'd bought the magazine anywhere else. As I recall, I failed by not getting all (possibly even any) of the clues to the main villain's location, and thus being unable to prevent him from destroying Titan City.

So it's an alternate history in which the Silver Crusader managed to thwart F.E.A.R.'s scheme. And has the ability to fire Energy Bolts, rather than possessing Psi-Powers. And he (between the illustrations and sections 71 and 115's description of what you wear at the swimming pool, DtD strongly implies that the hero's name is Jean as in -Paul Sartre rather than Marsh) has the following stats:
Skill 7
Stamina 24
Luck 7
I should probably have chosen the option to fudge.

I start the adventure with a couple of leads. International film-star Richard Gears (Mr. Shute's gag names are a lot worse than Mr. Jackson's) is notorious criminal the Fly (was this written just too soon for the author to realise that 'Geoff Goldbloom' would have been more appropriate?), and the villainous Cyanide Cecil is probably planning a raid on Titan City Chemical Plant. Oh, and yesterday someone calling himself the Dynamo took control of all radio and television broadcasts in order to claim responsibility for the mysterious nudiustertian power cut, and demanded to be made ruler of the world or he'd show the full extent of his power. As a taster, he plans to destroy Titan City a week from now.

Does anybody ever bother checking the earlier playthroughs when I link to them? (If you do, the one for DtD is here). I ask because, owing to changes forced on the unofficial FF forum by what looks like a corporate takeover, all the old links are now incorrect, so it'd be helpful to know whether or not it's worth fixing them. Oh, and the new look of the forum is a temporary thing (and a massive improvement on the hideous mess it became just after eamped.com unexpectedly turned into Yuku), and steps are being taken to make it more like it used to be.

Digression over, time to get on with the plot. I'm on my way to the office when a police car races past, and I hear gunshots. Looks like I'm going to be late for work again...

Hostage to Fortune
Armed policemen are surrounding a run-down house in which a man holds a gun to a girl's head. The detective in charge gives me the option of going in first, which the text accepts for me. I get to choose whether or not to fire an Energy Bolt. If I do, I have to make a Skill roll to hit my target, and my Skill's not that good. But if I don't, I'll have to take the man on in physical combat, and my Skill's not that good. But one section covers both missing and not firing, so at least there's no risk of harming a bystander if I do miss. I take a shot, and it's just on target. The gunman is out for the count, and the Stamina cost of firing the Bolt is a lot less than what I'd probably have incurred if I'd gone mano a mano with him.

Fly in the Ointment
A black limo pulls up further down the street, and guess which celebrity steps out. Bizarrely, the text has me slip into an alleyway, change back into my street clothing, approach the cinema where Mr. Gears is signing autographs, duck into another alleyway, change back into my superhero costume and approach the Muscan malefactor. He transforms in Hulk-style clothes-ripping manner (I can't really say 'Hulks out' because he's not the Hulk, and 'Flies out' sounds as if it means something else) and attacks, and for some reason (let's say it's the risk of hitting a member of the public) I don't get to use my power, so this is a straight fight. He beats me on Skill, but my Stamina might help me last long enough to get in a few lucky blows (my Luck is too low for Lucky blows) and subdue him. But with his Stamina, it'll take half a dozen lucky blows, and I'd be surprised to get that lucky. Nope, I only manage to hit him once all fight.

What sort of wrongdoing would be thematically appropriate for a villain called 'the Fly' anyway? Walking on people's food while wearing dirty shoes? Making an annoying buzzing noise?

Repeatedly banging into windows?

The tabloids will struggle to come up with a pithy headline to cover my defeat.

Monday, 17 June 2013

The Sea Calls to Me

I don't have any T&T characters experienced enough to send through Sewers of Oblivion, the 13th of the Flying Buffalo solos, so next up is G. Arthur Rahman's Sea of Mystery. This was among the T&T solos stocked in Dungeons and Starships the time I found the Corgi City of Terrors there - in fact, it was the only one they had (other than City) that was new to me, so I bought a copy and looked through it on the coach. Later, after I'd got back to Hull, I rolled up a character and played it, and actually survived.

That copy was from one of the later print runs, with pages sized A4 or thereabouts, and a colour cover. I subsequently traded or gave that one away, and what I have now is a British first edition, with A5 pages and a monochrome cover. And a former owner has pencilled details of the character types permitted in the adventure on the front cover, presumably to save the effort of having to turn the booklet over and read that information from the back cover.

There are no restrictions on character type, so I'll take the dice as they fall, and choose whatever profession they're best suited to.
Strength: 11
Intelligence: 11
Luck: 14
Constitution: 11
Dexterity: 11
Charisma: 13
Speed: 15
Slightly above-average, then. The rulebook recommends making a Rogue if Luck is the highest of the first three attributes, but Rogues aren't much good in solo adventures, as they need to be taught magic before they can cast spells, and opportunities for learning are pretty scarce when you don't have a GM.

Thinking about some of the oddities of this adventure, I'm leaning more towards making a Wizard. Weird Bermuda Triangle-esque shenanigans might change my weapon into a dagger at any moment, so I wouldn't get the full benefit of the wider range of weapons available to a Warrior, and the Warriors' bonus for wearing armour loses some of its appeal when the unsuitability of armour as a flotation device is taken into account.

So I'm a Wizard. Can't afford a proper magic staff, but there is a spell that can be used to create a makeshift one. In view of the risk of its exploding when first used, I've tested it in advance, casting a Knock Knock spell on my own front door to save the hassle of getting my keys out. And, bearing in mind that many encounters can turn out differently depending on my character's gender, I'm going to randomly determine that to add a bit more variety. Male on an odd number, female on an even. And I get a 4.

Since childhood I've heard tales of the wonders and horrors of the Sea of Mystery, and now I've decided to experience them for myself. So I head to an unspecified Candavan port and spend a while wandering the streets. This leads to a random encounter (there's a lot of randomness in this adventure). Someone recognises me. But as I'm not a Dread Pirate (not yet, at any rate), it's just an acquaintance from the local equivalent of Hogwarts or something, so we say hello, lie about keeping in touch, and go our separate ways.

I don't have enough money to buy passage on a ship, so unless I want to roam the streets until I manage to save a rich man from muggers or get press-ganged (the other possible random encounters here), I shall have to sign on with the disreputable ship that's looking for crew. Or I could leave the adventure altogether, but what would be the point of that?

I'm not certain, but the ship in question might be a pirate ship. Still, beggars can't be choosers. I set sail with them anyway, and the dice determine that this is actually just a regular merchant ship with a dodgy-looking crew. The Sea Sprite isn't transporting a conventional cargo, though. The Iderian coastal cities are under assault from desert tribes, and the wealthier citizens are prepared to pay well for safe passage away. A priest brings a crowd of poor people to the dock, and asks that the Captain take them on board out of charity. I suggest to the Captain that a little humanitarian work might improve his reputation, and find myself jobless.

But not for long, as the priest asks me to help defend the temple. A little perturbed to find that the whim of the strange forces operating here has transformed my dagger into a sabre (which, as a Wizard, I am unable to wield), I nevertheless agree, since the only alternative is stealing a raft. During the next assault, I wind up in combat with a maddened raider. A Take That, You Fiend spell takes the edge off of his initial attack, but also leaves me just weak enough that I wouldn't be able to use my dagger even if it were still a dagger. My options are now somewhat limited: a second TTYF wouldn't quite kill him, but it would leave me too weak to stand up. If I were to ignore the text's insistence that I strike the lethal blow with my unusable-to-me sabre, I'd could either use the dagger anyway, losing further Strength as a result of overexerting myself and, unless I got very lucky, getting carved up over the course of the next few rounds, our I could use my makeshift staff to hit him and die by attrition, since I'd never be able to injure him, but most of the time my armour (I bought a few easy-to-ditch items just in case) would reduce the damage he inflicted to just a few points.

With the dagger I'll have a slim chance, so I'm using that, whether the powers-that-be (as mediated by Mr. Rahman) like it or not. And I roll incredibly low, while the raider gets a double-six, leaving me on the verge of death. One last, pathetic jab, and he runs me through.

The deity whose temple I was defending takes pity on me, and brings me back to life in a new body, back in the port where I started. I'm now a man, though, and I have to reroll everything but Intelligence. My Strength and Constitution have each dropped to 9, Dexterity's down to 10, Charisma is a mere 8, and Speed is 12, but apart from the changed gender and largely inferior physical attributes, I'm still the same person.

Maybe I should name this character Odnalro.

I could quit the adventure now, but they do say, "You have to get back on the horse that threw you," so I guess that means that I must go down to the sea again. Starting funds for my new body are a little lower than for the original, but I buy more or less the same equipment again, the only significant difference being the type of dagger I get. It does slightly less damage, but I'll still be able to use it even after casting a TTYF. Even on my lower-than-before Strength. That's one mistake that I've learned from.

I also make and test out a new staff. One of these days I'll fail the Saving Roll, and then I'll be left wondering what having a home-made magic staff explode when used actually does to a character, as the rulebook doesn't specify.

So, back to the harbour, where I sign on with another dubious-looking Captain. No, the dice indicate that it's the same one. There must have been a few days' wait before the temple was attacked, to give him time to get back here. Still, he's never going to imagine that the slightly weedy, unattractive bloke talking to him is the same person as the tougher, prettier woman he abandoned in Magodha.

Mind you, the Captain's not the man he was. Whether it's a guilty conscience at having refused the refugees, a curse for having done so, or something else entirely, something has made him miserly, surly, and prone to flogging crew members for the slightest offence. He keeps his gold in an iron chest in his cabin.

After an uneventful crossing, he and most of the crew go ashore. I'm not going to push my luck and try taking the money, but I will attempt to jump ship. Alas, one of the other crew left on the ship spots me, and I'm seized. Upon his return, the Captain decides to have me marooned, so the crew row me to a sand bar and abandon me there with just a day's food and water and a stiletto. I don't survive.

That was something of a disappointment. Parts of the adventure (none of which I encountered today) appear to have been inspired by some of William Hope Hodgson's maritime horror stories, of which I am rather a fan, so I'd like to be able to enjoy it, but the actual design is flawed. The random determination of incidents goes a little too far for my liking, and while I can see how the 'Bermuda Triangle-esque effects' of the region could be of use in some situations, having them saddle the player with a weapon that Wizards can't use is a very careless implementation of the gimmick.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Greed, Heedless of Caution, Lures Many a Man to His Death

Quite some time has passed since I played the first Sagard the Barbarian gamebook here, but book 2, The Green Hydra, has finally come up on the schedule. As with the first book, I first experienced it as an online scan, and went on to acquire a somewhat defaced copy in a trade. My memories of playing it don't go much beyond a map (possibly of a maze) with section numbers on it. I seem to recall having had some kind of problem with it, though I couldn't say whether that was because of the legibility (or lack thereof) of the scan, or some perceived flaw with the book itself.

As I won the first book, and characters may be carried across from one to the next, I start my new adventure with the magic sword.I acquired from the Valkyrie, and no confusion about my experience score. Anyone starting in this book has a bit of a problem, experience-wise, as the amendments made to the rules since the first book are inadequate. Sagard starts this book as a Level 3 fighter, though he was Level 2 at the beginning of book 1. Any remotely competent player who made it through The Ice Dragon will have gained the 20 experience marks required to go up to Level 3, and probably already have made some progress towards the total required to attain Level 4. Newcomers appear to start at 0 experience, even though they already fight like someone with a score of at least 20. It's not entirely unlike having a student loan to pay off. The rules also still contain some no-longer-relevant details about trophies and the Ordeal of Courage.

The transition from the first book is a little awkward. At the end of that one, I declared my intention to spend the night celebrating with my tribe, and set off alone to find my destiny in the morning. At the start of TGH, I'm accompanying a team of my tribesmen on a trading mission. And comparing the maps in both books reveals the village to have moved a significant distance north.

The red X shows roughly where the village was on the book 1 map

Some distance south of the portion of the map reproduced above, the trading party is ambushed by Hukkas (stereotypical war paint-wearing, spear-wielding warriors). I have no problem defeating my attacker, who flees when I break his spear, but he and I are the only survivors. Relieving my late companions of food that will no longer be of any use to them, I regain what little health I lost in the fight. Searching the other dead, I discover that one of them is no Hukka, nor even a human. It's a humanoid reptile in armour, with a hieroglyph-inscribed medallion of volcanic rock that I take as a trophy. I also find a number of portable trinkets liable to fetch a decent price from the traders we were seeking. Might as well try to salvage something from this ill-fated expedition, so I head on towards where we were going.

Not far away is a Hukka canoe, which I take a chance on using. The risk of being spotted on the waterways seems less of a problem than the possibility of stepping into one of the traps that the Hukkas like to set along the trails through the marsh (which, in this book, is actually a marsh rather than a frozen wasteland - maybe it thawed out in the spring). For some reason, paddling through the swamp restores more health than eating rations, or would if I weren't already at full health. The sound of drumming alerts me to the fact that the Hukkas are on a death hunt. Evidently the warrior who escaped has told the rest of his tribe what happened, and they mean to avenge his spear. I paddle faster.

A woman calls to me from the shore, offering to heal my pains. Not sure if she means that literally, or as a euphemism for killing me or making love. Before I can ask for clarification, the canoe hits a log. A 'log' that splits into two tooth-lined halves, which bite a massive chunk out of the prow as I dive overboard. I surface to see that the canoe-crunching creature is a crocodile-headed dinosaur, or Crocosaurus. And it's a Level 5 Fighter, but a slow mover, so I can get in two attacks for every one it makes. A tough fight, nevertheless, and if I survive, I'll be hoping that the woman on the bank was speaking plainly.

I get half-killed in the process of completely killing the Crocosaurus. The woman on the shore has now lit a lantern, which reveals her to be quite old. She offers to wash my wounds, and I decide to trust her. As she leads me to her hut, she explains that the Crocosaurus kept her alive as bait, and she used to be quite the looker. She treats my wounds with an ointment that restores me to full health, and transforms into a beautiful young woman. I fall asleep before I get an opportunity to investigate this phenomenon.

In the morning, I am alone. A note tells me to follow the trail of coins, which I do. As far as I can tell, I collect the coins as I go, but it looks as if money is meaningless for the purposes of this adventure, as no details are given of how much I acquire. Another note accompanies the final coin, giving me directions to the Ancient Road, stating that the Hukkas won't give me any more trouble, and claiming that we will meet again.

While somewhat overgrown, the Ancient Road is still in pretty decent condition, and by sundown I can see my intended destination on the horizon. Not wishing to be ambushed by nocturnal bandits, I make camp for the night, and must choose between sheltering in the surrounding forest and going to the nearby ancient ruins. Why is 'not the ruins' even an option? In this style of adventure, not investigating mysterious ruins is like not breathing in on a regular basis. The adventure has 101 sections, but could easily have been made a more aesthetically pleasing 100 by the elimination of that particular non-choice.

As I approach the ruins, I am attacked by a trio of the reptilian chappies who had a representative among the Hukkas, and belatedly remember that they're called Sliths. For some rather ominous reason they won't turn their backs on the ruins, so I don't get completely surrounded, but I do have to fight them simultaneously. The three of them collectively do almost as much damage as the Crocosaurus, but I'd have been in worse trouble if any of them had thought to use their poisoned daggers rather than their scimitars.

The ruin turns out to be an abandoned temple, containing statues of cyclopean or multi-limbed deities and cloven-hoofed demons.

In the absence of any evidence to the contrary,
I'm guessing that it was occupied by Harryhausen-worshippers.

Not entirely surprisingly, sleep brings some pretty freaky dreams. Scantily-clad priestesses chant a song with some pretty iffy rhymes ('lad' rhymed with 'spread'?), indicating that I've been chosen to halt the spread of the Slith, defeat some undead, and smite the Hydra's Eye. Don't ask how I was able to spot the capitalisation in a phrase sung to me in a dream.

I wake to find a golden chalice of glowing liquid (not yak's milk - I'll explain why I bothered to specify that in around a month) at my feet. This is Ambroth, a mystical potion that not only restores me to full health, but will also repeat the trick in the midst of any one battle. I should probably be a bit concerned that the authors think I'm likely to need that.

The following day I reach the declining city of Suthorp. In exchange for something shiny, a boy guides me to the shop of Chaga the trader and advises me to accept what I'm offered. Chaga is surprised to see a lone Ratikkan, so I explain about the ambush, and he's pleased to hear of the Hukka casualties. He offers me a hundred gold pieces for the trinkets, and the book has me haggle, to general consternation. He warns me to reconsider, and I have the option of backing down, but now I've been placed in this situation, I'm refusing to be intimidated.

Everyone else in the shop attacks me. Possibly one at a time - the book specified the simultaneous attacks by the Sliths, but here it just says that I may attack the men in any order I want. Then again, it does say 'none of them could stand alone against you in combat', which implies that they all go for me at the same time. But a combat with six participants is going to be a lot of faff, so to simplify matters I start off by hurling poisoned daggers at the two who are likely to be most bother: the Level 2 Tehnite veteran and the fat Yatian peasant, who's only Level 1, but will take a while to kill. The others strike back, but only the thin Yatian peasant wounds me. He's only Level 0, but I may have to use the last dagger on him, as he has more Hit Points than the three non-Yatians combined, and will take a long time to put down. Still, for now I'll focus on the Level 1 Fexian, as he's the most dangerous foe still standing. It takes two rounds to fell him, during which time nobody inflicts so much as a scratch on me. The Level 0 Gyptic henchman succumbs just as quickly (though with better rolls I could have killed him with one blow), and after that it's just me versus skinny. He doesn't manage to hit me at all during the six rounds it takes me to incapacitate him. Perhaps I should have held onto those daggers.

Chaga now offers me a more favourable deal: anything in his store in return for his life. A crowd of would-be-looters forms at the door, three formidable-looking Tehnite snake-worshippers in their midst. If I want the loot, I may have a tougher fight on my hands. But 1500 gold pieces' worth of jewellery (apparently I'm an expert at pricing, among other things) would help compensate the tribe for my deceased companions.

I go for the money. The Tehnites attack. This could get nasty. It does. Even with the complete restoration of my health the first time I get brought to death's door, they're that bit too proficient, and I am heavily outnumbered. One is dead, and another badly hurt, by the time I succumb, but dead is dead. And to add insult to injury, the title of the section containing the fight (each individual section of a Sagard book has its own title) implies that I wanted the loot for myself, rather than for my people. If that was supposed to be the intention, why did the book bother to mention the tribe when telling me about the cash?

Still, flicking through the book, I see that the former owner with the biro has all but rendered that map illegible, so maybe it's for the best that I failed before I could be provoked to new heights of rage by having to try and decipher the text under that idiot's scrawlings.