Monday, 29 July 2013

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Roy Cram Jr.'s Mistywood was the last Tunnels & Trolls solo in the first bundle of Flying Buffalo editions I acquired. Well, the last in publication order. There were a couple of in there that I have yet to attempt on this blog even though they came out sooner, because they're for characters more advanced than I currently have. And given that I've only beaten two of the nineteen non-advanced level T&T solos I've played on this blog, I can see that it would be futile to try taking lower-level-than-recommended characters into the ones I've skipped for now.

Mistywood was also one of the adventures republished by Corgi, and the volume containing it was among the ones I found in the discount bookshop some months after getting the FB bundle. As I didn't yet have a copy of the solo which accompanied it in the book, I wound up buying it in spite of the duplication, though I paid more attention to the companion adventure, as that was new to me.

I have no memory of how my first attempt at Mistywood ended, but I'm sure it wasn't successful. Not least because I still have no idea exactly what I have to do in order to win. Indeed, there are only two elements of the plot that I remember at all, and I intend to evade one of them if I survive long enough to get the opportunity, as I don't anticipate getting through the combat element of the encounter in question alive.

At the start of the adventure, my character is a fugitive. Turns out that the arrogant fop against whom I had to defend myself with lethal force back in Kasar was the only son of the ruling tyrant, Duke Bronzo, who now wants me dead. Somehow that fight failed to net me any experience points, so my character's a straightforward
Strength: 16
Intelligence: 9
Luck: 12
Constitution: 11
Dexterity: 15
Charisma: 7
Speed: 11
Well, that Charisma score goes some way towards explaining why the young idiot started a fight with me, and the Strength and Dexterity help clarify how I was able to win despite having an inferior weapon (unusually, the background specifies that I was using a poniard, which is one of the more rubbish models of dagger (but also one of the few weapons that just about any character is certain to be able to use)).

Anyway, fatigue forced me to stop at an inn in the semi-abandoned village of Bumley (and no, the locals haven't been departing in order to find a home with a less ridicule-inviting name). During the night, hideous howling noises outside inspired bad dreams about being chased through a forest by a dog-faced monstrosity. Over breakfast, I'm asked by the innkeeper if I slept well, so I mention my bad night, and the first bit of the adventure I actually remember happens: the innkeeper explains that the noise which disturbed me was the Barghest, and after a 'comical' misunderstanding about the apparent rowdy conduct of his bar guests, he clarifies that the Barghest is a hellish hound summoned to torment the locals by a witch they executed on suspicion of being responsible for various mysterious fires and outbreaks of disease.

There's obviously more to the story, but I'm going to have to buy the innkeeper a drink if I want to hear the rest. No actual cost is mentioned (nor, for that matter, do I know what I'm supposed to have paid for the room - perhaps I traded in the experience points from the fight in Kasar), but I can probably get away with paying just a gold piece, what with the poor quality of the inn's fare and the impoverished nature of the village. I do so, and learn that on the night after the witch summoned the Barghest, the man who testified against her had his throat torn out, and something with large paws dug up the witch's grave and removed her remains. And since then, the Barghest has prowled the streets at night, hence the departure of a significant proportion of the population.

Realising that time is getting on, and my pursuers will be getting closer by the minute, I make a hurried departure. On my way to the stable I notice two horses hitched to a post, but my character's not smart enough to deduce anything from this, and just heads on into the stable, where a reception committee is waiting. I'd have a reasonable chance against one of the Duke's men, but together they outclass me just that bit too much, and in a comparatively lengthy battle, the fighters eventually wear me down and kill me. The text encouragingly notes that anyone who fails to survive the fight was 'too weak for this adventure anyway'. So maybe the back should have specified some minimum stats as well as the maximum to be allowed to play, and then I could have put this adventure on hold until I had someone who could handle it, eh?

Friday, 26 July 2013

Half-Asleep Upon My Knee

There are at least a dozen gamebook series of which I have only a few volumes (or even just one), and I'm not concerned about filling the gaps in most of them - I have the books I want from the set, and am at best indifferent to the others. Nevertheless, while not obsessively completist, I will sometimes acquire something about which I'm not all that fussed if it's the only item I'm missing from a set (and at least reasonably priced). So while I was largely content to just have the 5 Wizards, Warriors & You books I'd read and, to an extent, enjoyed before (and it helped that they were all one lot on eBay), I did keep an eye out for the one WW&Y book I still lacked (I'm talking UK editions here - I know the US series was something like three times as long, but I have no great desire to track down the ones that were never published over here), and since playing book 3 on this blog, I've managed to get my hands on a copy. So I'm taking on the rôle of the Wizard and casting a fourth wall-breaking Move Time Back spell in order to have a shot at dealing with The Siege of the Dragonriders.

This adventure, by the pseudonymous Eric Affabee, is set around two years after the preceding one. A day before the harvest is due to commence, an army of two hundred-odd black-armoured warriors fly into King Henry's realm on dragons and lay waste to the crops in the northern half of the region. As they prepare to depart, one of them announces that they will return to take over the kingdom. Once they're gone, the King entrusts the Wizard and the Warrior with a mission to discover the dragonriders' secrets and exploit them to ensure that no attack can be made on the lands to the south. As he sets off to implement austerity measures, the Warrior and I begin to follow the trail of destruction.

We don't get very far, as a transparent barrier blocks our way, and also prevents our retreat. I recognise this as a manifestation of the Invisible Shield spell (despite the fact that the write-up of the spell indicates that the shield encircles the caster, and disappears if he moves more than a few feet away, so unless the enemy sorcerer is present with us, there should be no way for it to imprison us like this. My character doesn't think of that, so unless he's being a bit slow-witted, the author is at fault here.

Regardless, I resort to using the Combat Magic spell, which will leave me unable to use any more magic today. Nor will I be able to use Combat Magic again this adventure (given the variable duration of the quests in these books, I can only conclude that the magic is aware of the fictional nature of what is going on, and recognises when one plot is over and another has commenced). Coin-flipping will determine whether or not I successfully cast this 'unpredictable' spell. Which is odd as, while some of the spells are said to be unpredictable in the list at the back of the book, the description of this one states that 'It will immediately dispel any magic, except that of a Grand Wizard' rather than 'It might work if the author is in a particularly benevolent mood'.

It does work, but it leaves me too physically drained to do anything else. The spell has also sapped the Warrior's strength, presumably operating on the same principle that allows a toddler to run wild all afternoon and still be full of energy, while the adults who've done nothing but sit and watch for the past few hours are exhausted. This is far from ideal, especially as the invaders also left a pack of dragonwolves (don't ask - the author couldn't be bothered to give anything more than a name) in case we managed to escape from the shield, so we get eaten.

Incidentally, a quick check of the section for getting more heads than tails reveals that the dragonwolves wouldn't be there if we were in a fit state to fight them. Mutable circumstances like that can enhance an adventure when used well, but they're more often just unwillingness to go to the effort of making the world of the adventure internally consistent, or even a means by which gamebook authors mess with their readers. One of these days, some joker will produce an e-gamebook that periodically changes its contents, so that what was once the best choice becomes suicidal on a replay.

Well, if that first incident is indicative of the general quality of the adventure, I should have contented myself with just having books 1 and 3-6.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Strange How the Same Life Patterns Recur

Between Warlock magazine and Titan - the Fighting Fantasy World, Ian Livingstone's Crypt of the Sorcerer got a fair bit of advance publicity. I don't remember where I got my original copy, but I do know that, while I looked through it a fair bit, I didn't actually play it as promptly as I had many others. This was because I was going on an exchange trip to Germany during the Easter holidays, and saved the book for the journey.

I can't remember whether or not I used dice. The fact that I got as far as I did through what is a preposterously difficult gamebook suggests that I didn't, but the circumstances of my failure make that less certain: I chose to avoid a certain item because I suspected (quite rightly) that it would come to life and attack me, as a result of which I missed obtaining something else that I needed to survive the climactic confrontation. And why would I have wanted to avoid a fight if I'd been playing without dice and automatically winning every battle?

In any case, I played it on the train to the port from which we were departing, and after failing it, I managed to persuade Mr. Sanders, the teacher accompanying us, to have a go. He failed much more quickly, and as payback for the experience, insisted that I assist him in completing the cryptic crossword in his newspaper. I still remember that one of the clues included the words 'not cheap' as an anagram of 'cenotaph'.

In Germany I got the penfriend with whose family I was staying to have a go at the book. He definitely used dice, as an unlucky roll got his character throttled by the opponent I'd so catastrophically chosen to evade.

Rolling up a character would be a waste of time. If you don't have maximum stats, you're doomed. Actually, even with the highest possible scores in all attributes, you're still doomed, but you might last a bit longer before dying. Or you might fall victim to the 1 in 3 chance of getting Instant Deathed in the very first encounter on the tiresomely narrow True Path.

The plot is straightforward enough. An evil wizard named Razaak has come back from the dead because of an idiotic loophole in the magic used to seal him into his tomb, so I have to find the mystical McGuffins required to re-kill him. I learn all this from Yaztromo, the friendly wizard who appeared in The Forest of Doom and Temple of Terror, because at this stage of Ian Livingstone's writing career, he loved continuity between books almost as much as he loathed giving his readers even the slightest possibility of getting anywhere near winning.

Anyway, first I need to find the sword that used to belong to Razaak, as that's the only weapon that can harm him. It's currently in the possession of the hero who killed him the first time, who's become something of a hermit ever since killing Razaak caused him to turn into an animated skeleton. He's drifting about on a raft on the lake where he found the sword, somewhere in the Moonstone Hills, so I trek into them.

The first two decisions in the book concern which direction to go. Make the wrong choice either time, and you miss out on an essential item. I go the right way, and get attacked by half a dozen Harpoon Flies, which spit poisoned spikes at me. A roll of the die determines how many of the spikes hit me - and it's the lot. That much poison is enough to paralyse me, causing me to topple from my horse and land head-first in the marsh through which I was travelling. The Flies then lay their eggs in my body, and despite being face down in muddy water and completely unable to move, I don't drown, but have to spend the next few days waiting for the larvae to hatch out and eat me alive.

My previous online attempt lasted longer, but even then I only made it through the first nine encounters, and didn't get as far as actually acquiring the sword, let alone most of the other junk and trivia needed for getting through to the ludicrously unfair final battle.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Sentence Will Be Carried Out

Resuming my more successful attempt at the Lone Wolf series, I now get to replay The Caverns of Kalte. I can expect to do better than before, given that this time round I have a higher Combat Skill even before the game-unbalancing magic sword acquired last book comes into play. Still, if I don't follow the optimal path (and a little randomisation makes it impossible to guarantee doing so even if I never make a poor decision), I'll need to fight a battle in which taking any damage is lethal, so for my 'completing Fire on the Water' bonus I'll take Mindblast, which could shift the Combat Ratio far enough to make all the difference between success and failure.

The background, for anyone who doesn't know: Vonotar the Traitor, about whom my friend Banedon told me in the first book (and whom I could have encountered at a distance in the second one, had I made a different decision at one point), has assumed leadership of the Ice Barbarians to the north, and I've been chosen to bring him to justice. There's a time limit, as the impending winter will freeze the sea in around a month, so when the ship is blown off course by a blizzard, I have no choice but to set off from where we make landfall rather than wasting a day trying to get to where we were headed.

As before, I pick the longer but less hazardous of the two possible routes from here, in part because I'm not certain that it'll be possible to avoid that unwanted fight if I try the other way. Events transpire just as they did last time until the Baknar fight, which is over much more quickly and less painfully (for me) on account of my being a slightly better fighter and much better armed. Again I acquire protection from the cold (and wind up smelling revolting).

The encounter with the Ice Barbarians still gets my guides killed, but the Barbarian who goes for me winds up half-killed without even harming me, rather than knocking me down. The bow-and-arrow-toting child in his backpack is thrown clear, but even if I were willing to take a child hostage, I'm pretty sure the Barbarian wouldn't be discouraged from attacking, and if I remember rightly, the brat would put up a vicious fight, so I just focus on finishing the battle against the adult Barbarian. One blow is all it takes, even with his Endurance mysteriously higher than it was after I first hit him.

More Ice Barbarians approach. The book forces me to try and take the child I just orphaned hostage, and he proves about as manageable as a handful of enraged cats. Still, to my surprise, the Barbarians are unwilling to risk any harm coming to the boy so, threatening him with the knife he just tried to stick in my back, I retreat to my sledge. It'll be too slow with a full load, so I ditch the equipment on it, and leave the child behind as I make my getaway. I soon outpace them (and they're probably not as determined to chase me as they would be if they wanted to rescue one of their own).

By dusk I've reached the foot of a mountain range, and another blizzard is on the way, so I'd do well to find shelter. Fortunately, Sixth Sense (which I have) proves just as effective as Tracking (which I still lack) for detecting a nearby cave network. And both Disciplines are equally useless at alerting me to the presence of a crevasse in the floor, so I fall in. It's not a lethal fall, though (indeed, I manage to land unscathed), and a faint light attracts my attention. I'm beginning to suspect that back when I was trying to get through books 1-12 with one character back in the nineties, I always went for the shorter but riskier route, but depending on the source of this light, I might be just about to rejoin the trail I used to follow.

No, this is not what I expected. I've stumbled upon an ancient subterranean labyrinth constructed by an ancient race (retconned in the Mongoose edition to be the Shianti from the Grey Star books). I continue north until a melt-water river blocks my way, and attempt to get across Frogger-style by using ice floes as stepping stones. I have a 1 in 5 chance of falling in, and do not get a favourable outcome. Still, it's not automatically lethal, and the odds of my freezing and drowning are... Well, they're 3 in 10 in the original text, but only 1 in 5 in the Mongoose reissue. Not that that makes any difference here, as I get the same number as I did when trying to get across the river.

But this time low is good and high is bad, whereas for the crossing it was the other way round, so I survive. Continuing on my way for a while longer, I become aware of how hungry I'm getting when I smell food being cooked in a nearby chamber. And I like the look of the section number for investigating further.

Yes! I've found the mad old Barbarians I was hoping to encounter. They're roasting a small animal on a spit over a flaming bowl. Speaking to them will not produce the most favourable outcome, so I just attack. Neither of them manage to harm me (and one didn't even get the chance). One of the Barbarians wears a small triangle of blue stone on a chain around his neck. I take it, since that's what will enable me to evade that fight. I then eat the roast animal, and help myself to the hemispherical bowl over which they cooked it. There's a similar bowl nearby, and they can be combined to create a metal sphere, which enables the owner to carry around the inextinguishable fire that it contains without getting burned.

After travelling on for a while, I stop for a nap. Or possibly a lengthy snooze - the lighting down here makes it impossible to judge how much time has passed. Regardless, I press on again, eventually reaching a vast chasm with a ledge running around it. I haven't got far along the ledge before a two-headed serpent starts following me. Animal Kinship enables me to identify it as a venomous Javek, and I use the Firesphere to block its path. Unable to get past the flames, it eventually retreats (with a 'spiteful' hiss indicative of sapience on its part or excessive anthropomorphisation on my part in the Mongoose text), and I retrieve the sphere and continue on my way.

Beyond the chasm is (eventually) a huge chamber with fissures in the ceiling. I have the option of trying to climb up and out, but as it's a 500-foot climb and I have no reason to want to leave these caverns, I just keep going. The exit leads to a smaller cavern with two more exits, and tracks I cannot identify in the snow by both. While I don't have Tracking, I do know the unwritten (at the time this book came out) rule, so I go left. This takes me to a chamber with a bone-strewn floor. At the far side are massive granite blocks that I identify as the foundations of the fortress which Vonotar has made his home. Conveniently, there's also a ramp leading to a massive stone door.

Before heading over to the door, I search among the bones, eventually discovering a carved bone box that holds a diamond. Valuables aren't often worth much in Lone Wolf adventures, but I take it anyway. Continuing towards the door, I discover that the mound of ice crystals at the foot of the ramp is actually a living creature - another serpentine monstrosity. Trying to evade it without knowing how easy it will be to open that door doesn't look that smart, so I fight. The Crystal Frostwyrm is unaffected by Mindblast, but that makes no difference to the outcome of the fight, which is that the creature soon dies. It then melts because it was made of living ice (biology in Magnamund is weird), and soon only the contents of its stomach remain to be seen. There's a Silver Key in there, which I take, being mildly burned by the stomach acid coating it (biology in Magnamund is really weird).

Proceeding to the door, I find no handle, keyhole or hinges. However, there is a triangular indentation in one of the blocks beside it, and the blue stone triangle I got from the aged Barbarian is a perfect fit, and causes the door to open briefly. If anyone's wondering about the fight I've just evaded, it's against a creature with a highly toxic barb on the end of its tongue, and another of the triangles on a chain around its neck. Maybe one of the Barbarians was keeping it as a pet, and this door is the equivalent of one of those cat flaps that only open when a cat with the right kind of chip approaches. Or possibly the encounter just makes no sense at all.

Inside the fortress I soon find a room full of rubbish, with a lever beside the entrance. The lever activates a stone door that can seal off the room. Even so, I search among the debris and find a serviceable rope. Also an intact backpack, but I could only take that if I'd lost the one I had at the start. Heading further into the fortress, I reach a hall from which I can go east or west. I was heading north, so the correct way is obvious.

Encountering a closed door with a lever beside it, I pull the lever. The door only partly opens, but I can squeeze through into the long-neglected room beyond, which contains another backpack, this one stuffed with vials of potion. I examine the contents of the vials, different Disciplines enabling me to identify a Healing Potion (inevitably derived from Laumspur), a potion that'll give me an edge in combat (worth saving for a lot later) and a powerful sleeping draught. I accidentally break the last vial while trying to open it, but I recognise what it contained as a result of my sojourn in the Graveyard of the Ancients. It's a powerful poison, and (absurdly) knowing what it is causes me to take damage from it, while I'd be unaffected if I couldn't tell what it was. That's taking 'what you don't know can't harm you' way too literally.

The next room I enter contains a stone chest, carved with hideous creatures. It has a lock, and the key from the Frostwyrm's stomach fits it. Amusingly, the Mongoose edition has to specify that only a Silver Key listed as a Special Item will do, and the Silver Key that's a Backpack Item (presumably the product of an edit in a reissue) won't fit. The lock swallows the key (the Mongoose text is clearer about the impossibility of retrieving the key), but that's not a major disappointment as the chest contains a helmet which boosts Combat Skill, so I don that.

Ascending stairs to a landing, I spot a concealed door and open it. My Sixth Sense and experience remind me of a legend about Ice Demons who travelled to this world but were imprisoned in ice crystals upon their arrival. The lesser ones power the lighting here. Breaking ice crystals in here would be a bad idea, so I don't step on the flagstones that appear to be made of quartz. Crossing the chamber without incident, I reach an altar with a statue of 'white stone' on it, and sense that something is trapped inside. Hitting it with a weapon could be suicidal, so I leave via a staircase. This takes me to a hidden passage that runs above the corridors, so I stay out of the way of the fortress' inhabitants for a while.

Eventually a portal to below catches my attention, and I look through it, spotting a man sitting in a pentagram. When I call to him, he claims to be a merchant from Ragadorn, captured by the Barbarians. I choose to leave him there, since I think it suspicious that a mere merchant should be held in a magical prison. Especially as previous attempts on which I never found this hidden passage did include an encounter with a disguised Helghast in a similar cell.

Steps lead down to the standard corridors, and I find another secret door. The passage beyond it passes another cell, this one containing an old man who's clearly taken a bit of a beating. His robes are so dirty and bloodstained, I can only just make out that they look like the ones worn by Banedon. Still, that's enough to identify him as one of the Brotherhood of the Crystal Star, so I open the door. The prisoner is Loi-Kymar, whose capture by Vonotar is the focus of the mini-adventure in the Mongoose edition (and by far the best of the Mongoose mini-adventures I've played to date). He explains that Vonotar, fearing the Darklords' wrath for his failure to achieve what they wanted him to do (a significant part of which was killing me), wanted to gain Loi-Kymar's mastery of teleportation, and has been unsuccessfully attempting to get learn the secrets of loi-Kymar's Guildstaff ever since he captured him. Loi-Kymar offers to guide me to the hall where Vonotar resides and, once the traitor has been captured, teleport me back to the ship.

By paying attention to the sounds of the fortress, Loi-Kymar has learned much about the secret doors and passages, and he leads me to the kitchens. I empty that sleeping draught into the cauldron of gruel, and the nearby Barbarians are soon out of action. Some healing is then provided (not that I need it right now). After that Loi-Kymar shows me the corridor to the hall. There are two Barbarian sentries, so to keep them from causing trouble, he brews up a bowl of gas, and I'm able to sneak close enough to deliver it unnoticed, so the guards soon pass out.

We enter the hall, where Vonotar sits on a throne atop a crystal pyramid. He doesn't notice us until Loi-Kymar sneezes, at which point the villain creates a moat around the pyramid, from which he summons a tentacled monstrosity to attack me, and psychically attacks Loi-Kymar. I need to kill the monster before Vonotar can kill the old wizard, but it's undead, so the Sommerswerd does double damage. Thanks to a couple of lucky rolls, I take less than half the time limit.

Perceiving me as the greater threat, Vonotar breaks off his attack on Loi-Kymar, who creates a bridge of creepers across the moat. As I'm crossing, Vonotar fires a cone of frost at the bridge, but the Sommerswerd is able to attract and neutralise hostile magic (as he'd already know (but forget) if I'd encountered him last book), so no harm befalls me.

Loi-Kymar then traps Vonotar with vines, and advises me to confiscate all the Traitor's rings and amulets. Retrieving his staff, he scorns my attempts to indicate the whereabouts of the ship, and just teleports the three of us straight there. The return journey is uneventful, and Vonotar is tried and sentenced to eternal imprisonment in the Daziarn, from which no escape is possible (though Grey Star would disagree). Still, now Vonotar's there, he'll never bother me again until book 11.

Friday, 19 July 2013

In the Shadow of the Mushroom Cloud

The fourth Combat Command gamebook is set 'in the world of David Drake's Hammer's Slammers'. I've heard mention of the series somewhere before, but as far as I'm aware, I've never read anything by Mr. Drake. Still, I was even less familiar with the setting of the previous Combat Command book, and I wound up enjoying that one, so I'm approaching Todd Johnson's Slammers Down! with an open mind.

The prologue indicates that the series is about space-travelling mercenaries with anti-gravity tanks. I may be missing some nuances here, of course. This particular adventure is set in the aftermath of a pretty decisive victory against another mercenary unit, Jebbitt's Raiders. I'm not entirely comfortable with the politics underlying the conflict, but the Raiders' atrocities and casual use of nukes clearly show them to be the bad guys, even if the people who hired them do have some legitimate-seeming grievances.

The principal character in the adventure is Lieutenant Braddington "Bull" Bromley, who starts it locked in a makeshift cell for brawling with Lieutenant Peter Smyth (also present, but too unconscious to make any more trouble). Both are brought before Colonel Hammer earlier than expected because an emergency has arisen. One of the Slammers' transports has crashed, and some of the remaining Raiders are attacking the survivors while they're vulnerable. Bromley volunteers for the rescue mission before he can be ordered to lead it. Smyth tries to make out that he didn't volunteer too because it was so obvious that he would, it shouldn't have needed saying, which doesn't go down well with Hammer. Bromley gets the option of having Smyth removed from command, and reflects on how well they used to work together before falling out over a woman. Looks like set-up for a 'reconciled through adversity' plot to me, so Bromley declines the offer.

Troops for the rescue mission are in rather short supply, as most of them are already en route to the next planet that's engaged the Slammers' services. The majority of the men available are trainees, just to make things that bit trickier. Consequently, even though some haste is required, Bromley checks in at Operations before addressing his men - the better informed he is from the outset, the greater his chances of keeping things under control. He learns of three viable routes to the crash site, and gets hints that the crash may not have been an accident.

On the way to where the troops are mustering, Bromley encounters an old friend, who mentions conflicting reports from the downed men: some say they're being attacked by civilians, others claim it's the Raiders. The mission just gets better and better. Smyth recommends using coded communications, in case any of the enemy have scavenged equipment that would enable them to eavesdrop. Doing so might confuse the trainees, but I think it's worth the risk.

Nothing has been said to indicate than any of the possible routes are significantly better or worse than the others, but I avoid the most direct one as I've been advised to choose one the enemy won't expect. The text implies that this was a smart choice. The next decision to be made concerns troop formation, and I pick one that will allow reconnaissance along the way, though that does expose the recon vehicles to some risk if they should be detected. Still, with part of the route leading through forested areas, not scouting for possible ambushes would be risky too.

Some banter precedes the embarkation, and I'm a little surprised to find that the radio operator is female - that's a little more progressive than I'd expected, based on the preponderance of male troopers up until now. Things then get a bit military jargon-heavy, and Bromley backs Smyth up when one of the recon troops tries going over his head to circumvent orders he doesn't much like.

An ambush has been prepared, but the recon units provide sufficient warning that the shots fired fail to hit any of the tanks. A fight ensues, and while the outcome is never really in any doubt, some disgustingly lucky rolls by the enemy result in the destruction of three skimmer squads. The exchange of fire will have attracted attention, too. It would be possible to switch to a different route around here, but the option isn't even available, as Bromley recognises that the alternate path leads through far riskier territory. Nice to have a gamebook pointing out that the viewpoint character knows better than to take some foolhardy action, rather than suggesting it and then saying 'you know that that's a dumb thing to do, and bad stuff happens because you were stupid enough to try it' to any reader who chooses poorly on account of not knowing everything that their character does.

At this point I have the option of modifying the formation, so the main force can provide back-up to the recon units more quickly. Could be worth it, if any of the enemy tanks managed to communicate with other hostile units before getting blown apart. And, given that nothing bad happens on the next stage of the journey, I think it was the right choice.

Things don't go so well once the convoy hits the forest, largely because some of the bulky tanks do indeed hit it, colliding with trees and drawing unwelcome attention. Four Slammer tanks are destroyed before the last remaining enemy unit withdraws while it still can. As the troops continue to advance, a possible enemy sighting is reported. Best to assume that it is hostile - a false alarm should be less problematic than failure to heed an accurate warning.

Nope, the distraction provided by the decoy allows concealed enemies to spring an ambush. This is liable to be nasty. Well, thanks to lousy rolls on both sides, the Slammers only lose one infantry unit before the hostiles withdraw, but the enemy units don't even get their paintwork scratched.

The journey continues, and when the next attack comes, one of the enemy units is daft enough to mock Bromley over the radio, thereby giving away that they're monitoring communications. Time to switch to the backup code. Suddenly deprived of their insight into the Slammers' tactics, the ambushers prove totally ineffective, and are atomised without inflicting a single casualty.

Suddenly I get asked for a callsign that was either mentioned briefly a long while back or never actually given. That's a little unfair, but the actual choice offered in the text makes this more a case of working out the author's psychology here than blindly choosing from equally plausible options. I choose correctly (and the close proximity of the sections covering the different outcomes indicates that getting it wrong would have resulted in nothing more catastrophic than a facepalm, so this 'puzzle' is merely pointless rather than harsh).

There are two towns between here and the crash site. The first one turns out to have a couple of enemy infantry squads in it. They don't last long, but the book could do with being a bit clearer about whether or not the ambush means that they get first shot - it makes all the difference between Slammer casualties being 2 or 0. I'll go with the worse option.

For the next stage of the journey, the heavier units lead the way. There's yet another ambush, inflicting heavy casualties. More hostiles in the last town, who halve the Slammers' remaining units with lucky rolls. The town is levelled, but enough damage has been done to give me pretty poor chances of succeeding.

The next choice is problematic, as Smyth wants units that no longer exist to secure the wreck. If I had to still have skimmers at this point, the book should have been more specific about allocating damage. Still, nothing bad happens as a consequence of my insisting on using non-vaporised troops, and the anticipated climactic battle fails to occur. Jebbitt is captured and handed over to the local forces of law and order.

The coda reveals that the punch-up which preceded the adventure was actually the result of a misunderstanding, and then has some vaguely ominous dialogue that could be foreshadowing something in a Slammers novel set after the events of this gamebook. Then there are several appendices, which could have done with being mentioned earlier, as they could have helped with making sense of jargon, working out callsigns, and adapting strategy to the different regions. If I were ever to play this book again, knowing that stuff could significantly improve the experience. But I'm not sure I can be bothered to try and find out, especially as I did narrowly win.

The only reason I found the appendices is because I was looking for David Drake's afterword, which is prominently mentioned on the back cover (the victory section is not the final one, so the fact that there were pages after it didn't automatically indicate the presence of relevant material after the end of the gamebook). The afterword isn't what I expected, being mostly about Drake's experiences in Vietnam and his unhappiness about the insanity in which he was involved there. He also makes some rather gloomy predictions about future conflicts, and while his failure to anticipate the ending of the Cold War means that the locations he mentions are inappropriate, Gulf War reportage has shown that he was a lot more accurate in his speculation about the impact of the hostilities upon civilians is the affected regions.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

You're Older Than You've Ever Been

It's a year since I started this blog, which strikes me as being as good an excuse as any for some self-indulgent waffling about statistics. Don't worry, I'll get back to losing at gamebooks (probably) tomorrow.

Over the course of the past 12 months I've played at least 130 adventures for this blog (the precise number depends on how you interpret teasers and rewrites, but could go as high as 136). At least 25 of them were ones I'd never attempted before, and I succeeded at 5 of those on the very first try. I also won 28 or so of the adventures I had previously played or read (one of them on the second try here).

The most frequently viewed playthroughs are all Fighting Fantasy titles. In first place is the one for The Shamutanti Hills, not particularly closely followed by City of Thieves and Island of the Lizard King. Of the non-FF entries, the one on the first Heroquest book has most views (and is to date the only one that's been responded to by the author of the book in question).

The post that's received least attention is the one on Proteus 8, and the second Sagard the Barbarian book has only had one more view than that (while the post that's been up for less than 24 hours has already overtaken both). Narrowing the scope to the first hundred playthroughs, Tunnels & Trolls Pocket Adventure 3 is still the most ignored entry.

I also have statistics on the search terms which led people here. The title of this blog is one of the most frequently used ones but, surprisingly, not the most common search term. That 'honour' goes to a phrase so random that I can't help but wonder if there's something dodgy about its popularity. Consequently, I'm not going to repeat it here, but I will reveal that it's words 10-14 of the second sentence of this entry. More obviously legitimate search terms that have cropped up more than once include 'cephalo squirrel', 'greek monster hydra' and '"painted frustis"'. Also a large number of variations on the proverb I used for the title of my entry on Island of the Lizard King, perhaps explaining in part why that's one of the more popular posts. As for the most bizarre (non-suspicious) search term that's brought somebody to this blog, the clear winner is 'does m'sire require a golden chalice of yak's milk'.

And now, a list of things that I've learned over the course of this year:
  1. Some gamebooks aren't as good as I remember them being
  2. A few are actually better than I'd realised
  3. Some days, the dice just aren't your friends.
  4. The changes made to the Lone Wolf books for the Mongoose reissues are, on the whole, not for the better.
  5. The system in the Sagas of the Demonspawn books is more cumbersome than I'd imagined.
  6. It gets even more so.
  7. Paper bags are worth looking into.
  8. Some Tunnels & Trolls adventures have ridiculously unbalanced fights.
  9. (With apologies to luk) Sometimes it pays to read the whole review before deciding whether or not to buy the book.
  10. (With thanks to Codiekitty) No matter how bad you think something is, it can still turn out to be even worse.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

The Ancient Empty Street's Too Dead For Dreaming

As I recall, Hatchards bookshop opened across the road from Tunbridge Wells train station (where the BBC Shop is these days, but larger) in early 1987. It may not have been on my very first visit there that I came across Peter Darvill-Evans' first FF book, Beneath Nightmare Castle, but it was certainly in that shop that I found it, flicked through, and came across the Instant Death where the luckless hero is staked to the ground by a tower, and the guards drop rocks from the top and place bets on who will be first to score a direct hit on the head. So I bought a copy.

Reading it on the way home, I got caught while searching the cellar, and met a gruesome fate. So I tried again and, upon discovering that I'd forgotten to bring my front door key with me, sort of completed the adventure (without dice) while sitting on the doorstep and waiting for another family member to get home and let me in. I say 'sort of' because I failed to realise that the trident head I'd acquired wasn't the whole of the weapon, in my ignorance passed an inventory check I should have failed, and avoided being beguiled into the trap that ought to have ended my adventure. And when subsequently catastrophically delayed by an illusion, I backtracked and picked the better option. Not one of my finer moments.

Still, the variety of horrific and gruesome incidents within the book appealed to me a lot, so I went on to play it properly, and enjoyed it enough that I often replayed it. I used it to test out my first ever gamebook combat manager (laboriously programmed on my original home computer, a Texas Instruments TI-99/4A). During my on-off relationship with gamebooks in the Nineties I reacquired it more than once, and it was part of the batch of FF books that got me back into the hobby for good.

My previous online attempt provided a reminder that, while there is a path through the book that gives a fair chance even to a character with low stats, a bad roll at the wrong time can ruin everything, so I may do a little fudging to improve my chances.
Skill 10
Stamina 14
Luck 12
Willpower 9
Yes, unwilling to risk being as Unlucky as I was a fortnight ago, I switched my best roll to Luck.

The adventure starts with me in a net. There I was, returning to the town of Neuburg, which I once helped defend from invaders, when a moment's inattention caused me to blunder into a trap. The Background section ends with me being rendered unconscious, and when I come round (with a headache described in one of the best metaphors in all FF), I've been tied up and blindfolded. After a while, a voice whispers to me that if I move a little, the speaker will be able to cut my bonds. It should come as no great surprise that I do as asked. The ropes around my wrists are cut, and by the time I've removed the blindfold and the ropes around my ankles, my rescuer has absented himself.

I don't loiter in the cellar where I was being held. My equipment has been stowed in the room at the top of the stairs, so I retrieve that. Peering through a slit in the wall, I discover that I'm in one of the guard towers by the East Gate, and the streets are a lot quieter than they should be at this sort of time. I also learn that I'm locked in, and that the door is too sturdy for me to break down. Still, by standing in the doorway, I can force my captors to fight me one at a time when they return, and individually they're rubbish fighters. Only one of the six of them manages to hit me at all.

Free at last, I make for a tavern of which I have good memories. Along the way I notice the locals barring and shuttering their windows as dusk falls. The tavern is closed, but banging on the door persuades the innkeeper to let me in. There are no other guests, so I make conversation with the innkeeper, asking what's afoot in Neuburg, and casually mentioning that little 'helping the Baron fight off barbarian invaders' incident. The innkeeper is sceptical until I show him the ring that the Margrave gave me to commemorate the battle. Then he explains that the Baron has changed since his last trip south, from which he returned with companions like the mob I fought my way through earlier, and that unidentified monstrosities roam the streets at night, killing any humans who don't stay indoors. I know that places where you had a good time in the past are never quite the same when you return years later, but this sounds a bit much.

Retiring to my room, I note that it would be easy to open the shutters and sneak out of the window. But this is one instance where it's definitely not wise to ignore the warnings not to wander the streets after dark, so I secure the shutters and go to bed. It's still dark when I wake from a bad dream and hear something making unpleasant noises outside. It takes a while to get back to sleep after that.

In the morning I head into town, and visit the Merchants' Quarter. There I decide to get some Provisions, and while queuing I sense that I'm being watched. A couple of robed warriors like the ones who captured me yesterday are staring at me, and while I'm distracted by their scrutiny, a starving girl attempts to steal my money. I roll well enough that there was no need to switch my best die to Luck at character creation after all. Oh, well, no harm done. Unless I subsequently die in battle.

Anyway, thwarted in her attempt at robbing me, the girl attacks me with a knife, then runs off. I won't give chase, as doing so leads to one of the nastiest incidents in the whole book, made all the worse by being a rare example of non-supernatural horror. Loathsome eldritch monsters are all in a day's work for your average gamebook hero, but having to use lethal force in self-defence against a mob of street children is just horrid.

So I get back to shopping and buy some pies. Then I catch sight of a bric-a-brac stall run by a Dwarf or Goblin. Those two swordsmen are still shadowing me and, noticing this, the stall-holder says he has an item that may help me deal with the unwelcome attention. I enter his shack, and he rummages around until he finds what looks like a garden fork without a handle. The asking price is most of my remaining money, but I know it to be a worthwhile investment. Once I've paid and have the thing in my hands, I become aware that it's the head of a weapon, and the stall-holder tells me that the complete weapon was devastatingly powerful against invading Southerners and their monstrous allies back in the olden days. Legend has it that the handle was swallowed up by the ground, along with the monsters.

I manage to elude my shadows on the way out of the Merchants' Quarter, and next head for the riverside area, which is the poorest part of town. A cart brings more of the robed warriors to the wharves, and I spy on them for a while. They bully assorted locals into loading crates onto a barge, but there's one crate that nobody will touch, no matter how vigorously the swordsmen wield their whips. Eventually the labourers run away and, after a brief conversation, the swordsmen depart, leaving the crate on the dockside.

Now I emerge from hiding and investigate the mysterious crate, which smells worse than the river, and has something scrabbling about inside it, but lacks air-holes. Whatever is inside won't be able to breathe. Or doesn't need to. I push it into the river, and get a Luck bonus for eliminating a collection of sorcerous abominations at no personal risk.

The innkeeper advised visiting a ruined temple and speaking to the oldest man in town, so I now head for the Temple Quarter. The temple I want is virtually derelict, and has an old man dozing in the doorway. Taking advantage of knowledge gained from past attempts, I spy on him too. This leads to my being attacked by a robed warrior and his pet, a hairless dog with a trumpet-shaped nose. They're no match for me.

Proceeding to the temple, I am greeted by the old man, who introduces himself as Huw. His voice is vaguely familiar. As a reward for killing the warrior and hound, he gives me a potion that will significantly boost my Skill for one fight, and as this book does away with the usual limitations on exceeding Initial Skill, that's something that could come in very handy.

Huw invites me in, and then puts a knife to my throat, explaining that he rescued me yesterday because he thinks that I may be the warrior foretold to challenge the evil in the town. If so, I will have a valuable treasure that links me to the town. I hand him the ring, and he gives me food, then lets me know some of what is going on. Basically, an ancient evil was trapped underground a long while ago, and this temple and Neuburg Keep were built over the entrances to the subterranean chambers. Now Xakhaz, the evil in question, is preparing to rise again, and the Baron seems to be under the influence of an unidentified wizard who serves Xakhaz. A week ago Huw's fellow priest Cernic went to the Keep, with a Talisman that can weaken Xakhaz and his minions, but nothing has been heard from him since.

At this point I am offered the option of undertaking an Ordeal, which promises certain benefits if I succeed. My chances of doing so are roughly equal to my chances of breaking down the door of the tower where I was imprisoned, so I decline. Huw then sends me on my way, with redundant or less-than-helpful advice about the parts of town I've already visited.

Only the Keep remains to visit. The locals who see me heading towards it clearly think I'm mad. Huw advised me to take a side path rather than head for the main gate, and I do so. I did on my first try, too, despite not having met Huw - there's just something about the path 'less traveled by' that automatically appeals. It leads me to an overgrown garden, and a choice of directions that can make things easier in the long run if I can remember which way to turn. And I get it wrong again. Ignoring the potentially sanity-shredding encounters that may be had on this fruitless path, I make for a tower.

It's dark inside. So dark that I am unable to see the creature which attacks me, but it growls loudly enough that I have little difficulty in keeping track of where it is, and defeat it with little difficulty. Letting some light in, I find that I've just killed an Ogre with a strangely oversized turban.  Nothing good will come of investigating the incongruous headgear, so I head up some stairs to a battered door, barred from the other side. Deducing that the Ogre was trying to break through it, I loudly announce that I've just killed the brute, and hear the sound of a barricade being moved out of the way.

A literally green-fingered Dwarf gardener thanks me for eliminating the obstacle that's kept him from doing his job of late. I tell him why I'm here, and he concludes that my story's too ridiculous to be a lie. Besides which, the situation is so bad that even if I am a villain, I can hardly make things worse. He invites me to rest here, and eat, if I have food - he's got none. I don't really need to eat, but he could do with a meal, so I let him have a pie. He offers advice, so I show him the three-pronged spear-head, which he thinks is the business end of the Trident of Skarlos. He then shows me a staircase leading down into the cellars, which would enable me to enter the Keep unnoticed (except by him, obviously).

I descend to a cold and dank passage, intermittently illuminated by shafts in the roof. Heading along it, I see a door that's been wedged shut, and pass it by. I took that side turning on my first try, and missed out on a shot at getting the trident handle. Besides which, as I'm playing by the rules this time, I could come to grief fighting the weird creature beyond the door.

The passage leads through a secret door into the wine cellar, and the text has me foolishly decide to sample the contents of a random barrel. I wind up getting the worst possible outcome: a bitter-tasting and mildly toxic liquid. Looking inside the barrel will only make things worse (someone misunderstood when they heard that a good brew should have a decent head on it, so the product of several decapitations has been added to the contents), but the alternative isn't a whole lot better - a second randomised drink. This one is at least a decent wine, but it makes me tipsy enough to confer a Skill penalty until I next eat. And it's a 'don't eat unless the text says you can' book.

Eight swordsmen enter and surround me. Not liking the odds (especially with my Shkill - hic - impaired), I surrender, and they take me to the Baron to be tried as a foreign spy. The Great Hall is a good deal less austere than it was on my previous visit, and I don't think the chained slave girls are a worthy addition. An enigmatic red-robed advisor whispers in the somewhat stoned-looking Baron's ear, and I decide to keep quiet about my history with this place. I am sentenced to imprisonment in the dungeons, and don't put up a fight because that's actually where I need to go next.

My lack of resistance makes me such a boring prisoner that the guards can't be bothered to confiscate anything before throwing me into the cell. I can eat there, so I do, and sober up. While extricating food from my backpack, I notice that the trident head has started faintly glowing. It gets brighter when I point it at the floor, so I prise up a few flagstones, eventually discovering a shaft leading further down. Crawling into it, I reach a passage with walls that glow orange. Three doors lead from it, and the trident head lights up a lot more when pointed at one of them, so I head for that door. It's locked, but I'm able to pick the lock (well, melt it) with the trident head.

Beyond the door, steps lead down. I head down them, and a voice demands that I state the name of the speaker's master. I name the villain of the piece, and the lights go on. Crystals set into the walls glow, illuminating the staircase, and allowing me to see the rather obviously booby-trapped step, which I avoid. At the bottom of the stairs is a chamber containing a sarcophagus. In the tomb is a skeleton, with a glowing metal rod lying on it. I take the rod, which is, of course, the trident handle. As I reattach the two parts, the skeleton animates, but a single touch with the trident causes the bones to fall apart and disintegrate. Mind you, against most opponents it 'only' gives me a Skill bonus and does double damage. Triple against non-humans.

Now I have the Trident, there's no need to investigate the other doors. I climb back up to the dungeon. Time passes, and eventually someone unlocks the door and asks who I am. I reply that I'm the foretold hero, come to cleanse the Keep of the evil infesting it and save the people of Neuburg from their enemies - no need to exaggerate. The man reveals the glowing Talisman he keeps concealed inside his tunic, lets me out, and introduces himself as Cernic, Huw's fellow priest. He gives me the Talisman, and is all set to scurry off, but I stop him and ask for the instruction manual. Somewhat reluctantly, he explains that the Talisman can be used to dazzle enemies, but must never be used in front of a mirror. He also tells me that the red-robed wizard exerting a malign influence on the Baron inhabits guarded chambers on the next level down, and the only way to reach Xakhaz is through the wizard's chambers. Then Cernic scarpers.

I soon find more stairs leading down, and descend to a corridor from which several flights of stairs lead up. There are double doors at both ends, one pair guarded, so I head for them. There's no way of getting to the guards unnoticed, so I go into surveillance mode again. After some time, the relief guards approach, but one of them is dawdling, so I ambush the fast mover before his companion can catch up. The second guard is a better fighter than the first, but the combined effects of the Trident and Talisman make him easy prey.

Disguising myself in one of the men's robes, I hide the bodies and approach the doors. Eager to go off-shift, the guards don't ask why there's only one of me, or how I got those blood-stained holes in my robe, but just head up one of the flights of stairs. I go through the doors into an anteroom with two further doors leading out of it. Voices come from behind one of them. If I go through it, I'll need to succeed at a Willpower roll to not wind up getting hypnotised and being absorbed by a chair that is not a chair. Yes, Mr. Darvill-Evans is a Doctor Who fan. A not necessarily fatal but still sub-optimal route through the encounter also features a paraphrase of a line from Mr. Tambourine Man, but between the risk involved and the fact that I'd have to kill an innocent in order to reach that section, I'd rather not go there.

The other door leads to a food storeroom, which has another exit leading straight to the wizard's chambers (I recognise the section number). I go through, and confront Xakhaz' minion in her lair. Yes, 'her'. Anyone familiar with the book will already know that the Baron is in the thrall of a female magic-user, but it's actually designed as a twist, with all prior references to the 'wizard' (bar one Instant Death) carefully worded to conceal her gender.

She's standing in front of a mirror, tinkering with a black box (not the flight recorder kind), and after introducing herself as Senyakhaz of Zagoula, draws my attention to the cobweb spanning the room, with a giant spider near the top. If it were real, she'd have kept quiet and let me walk into it (plus, I made the mistake of falling for her trick way back on the doorstep in 1987), so I march up to her as if the web weren't there. Which it isn't. She draws a knife, and I attack, not using the Talisman because I remember Cernic's warning. The Trident gives me enough assistance to deal with her anyway.

I now turn my attention to the box, which has a crude switch and the letters Z and X on it. I know that the mirror also functions as a magical portal, and this is the control box, and anyone who's been paying attention should be able to deduce the two destinations for which it can be set. Funnily enough, picking the wrong one doesn't automatically lead to failure, but there is only a 50% chance of being able to proceed to the right location afterwards (and one of the non-lose outcomes gets a bit timey-wimey, making it necessary to fight Senyakhaz again), so I'll go the right way straight off.

Passing through the mirror, I find myself in yet another subterranean chamber. An armoured warrior with a broadsword, radiating light through all the chinks in his armour, declares himself to be Skarlos, and warns me to leave. Noting the slight similarity of the name to 'Spartacus', I 'wittily' reply, "No, I'm Skarlos!" This so confuses the warrior that I'm able to get past him (or rather, it) without a fight.

The room beyond not-actually-Skarlos is filled with mounds of dismembered corpses. A voice taunts me, and I realise that I'm being addressed by the head that's balanced atop the biggest mound of body parts. Only its not just balanced there, it's attached. And that pile of assorted limbs is actually Xakhaz' new body. It starts scuttling towards me, and there's no avoiding this Willpower roll. I succeed, anyway and, having failed to acquire one of the two items that would (in combination) give me a chance to defeat Xakhaz without fighting him, I resort to downing the potion from Huw. Consequently, I'm fighting with an effective Skill of 16, and while the Talisman only reduces Xakhaz' Skill to 13, the Trident inflicts extra extra damage on the shambling heap that is my foe. So it's less 'epic desperate battle between outmatched hero and quasi-Lovecraftian horror', and more 'jab, jab, jab, parry, jab, jab, I win'.

Upon closer examination, I discover that Xakhaz' head (still mocking me even as I remove it from the rest of the body) is itself a patchwork job. Reducing it to its constituent parts shuts him up (but only because he no longer has a tongue with which to utter insults) and enables me to find the tiny metal box that is the immortal part of my enemy. I take it with me as I return to the mirror out of here.

Ascending from Senyakhaz' chambers to the main body of the Keep, I find that the Baron is back to his old self, ejecting the robed swordsmen and their soft cushions. I am richly rewarded, and Huw takes custody of the unkillable essence of Xakhaz to imprison it somewhere more secure. It's been a while since I won any FF here.

I enjoyed that. Again. Playing it safe meant that I missed a lot of the more warped stuff going on in the book, but there's plenty of inventive nastiness in there. And while the optimal path does give a fair chance even to below-average characters, there are plenty of other viable (though more hazardous) routes through the book, so first-timers still have a chance. Those alternate routes also give the book good replay value, and can make it a lot more challenging if that's how you like your gamebooks. It's not perfect (compulsory wine-tasting?), but I can see why I kept going back to it.

Monday, 15 July 2013

It's Not as Bad as It Appears

Blue Frog Tavern is the only Tunnels & Trolls solo I was ever really curious about before acquiring it. This was because I'd picked up a copy of Dicing with Dragons, Ian Livingstone's introduction to RPGs, in the Book Exchange, and the chapter on available games included sample pages from the four systems that got most attention. T&T was one of the four, and the page depicted was page 8 of Tavern. Those seven out-of-context sections from the adventure made me want to see the whole thing, so I was pleased when BFT turned out to be part of the bundle of Flying Buffalo editions I bought in 1990. Not so pleased at having to get it again in order to obtain the Corgi reissue of author James Wilson's earlier solo, Sword for Hire, but it makes sense that two adventures by the same writer were bundled together, especially as the eponymous tavern appears briefly in Sword.

Based on one possible encounter I remember, I'm creating a male character. Magic isn't permitted, so I'll just roll up a straightforward fighter.
Strength 13
Intelligence 9
Luck 11
Constitution 9
Dexterity 14
Charisma 13
Speed 10
Slightly above average, then, but well within the parameters laid down in the book.

My adventure starts when I enter the tavern and chat with the barman. He mentions that the proprietor is looking to hire an adventurer, and comments that the local order of Red Robed Priests have been harassing people in the region. Rumour has it that this is because their treasure room was looted. I also learn that I shouldn't address the Troll bouncer by his given name if I wish to retain my limbs.

There's a sudden, brief outbreak of violence, as a rock demon assaults the dwarf with whom he'd been conversing, and Butterfly-Dances-In-The-Morning-Dew (now you know why the bouncer doesn't like it when people say his name) grabs the demon and hurls him across the tavern. I choose to mind my own business, as I know that not much good can come of interfering in matters of industrial relations, and I remember from past attempts that the demon who just hit the wall is the tavern's new owner.

Then again, maybe I should have intervened, as Quartz, the demon, doesn't think much of my adventuring spirit. I get a chance to prove myself, though, as a couple of the Red Robed Priests burst into the tavern and take an ominous interest in Quartz and me. The bouncer kills one of them with a stool, but Quartz indicates that he wants me to finish the other one off. Which could be tricky, looking at the stats. The Priest does way more damage than I do, but I have armour that almost cancels out the disparity. It'll take some extremely flukey rolls for me to be able to harm him, but he's not necessarily going to find it easy to kill me.

While there's still some debate over the relative mightiness of the pen and the sword, no such uncertaintly applies when it comes to scimitar versus pulsing rune death-staff. It took the priest eight rounds to chip away at my meagre Constitution, as it turned out. Still, compared to my last T&T battle, that's almost like surviving to retirement age.

Friday, 12 July 2013

The Dead Tree Gives No Shelter

The Tyrant's Tomb is the third and final of Dave Morris' Heroquest books. Like the first two, it contains both a story and a gamebook, and like the second one, there's also a GM-and-player Heroquest scenario in there.

The story is a further adventure of Asgrim, the barbarian character from The Fellowship of Four. Here he's accompanied by a lame, disfigured and embittered thief named Flügel, who has discovered the lost tomb of Chungor Khan and needs help in dealing with the more physical obstacles to extracting the treasure within. It's an entertaining tale, with some unexpected developments along the way, and the means by which Asgrim defeats the revenant Khan is set up in advance, but mentioned casually enough not to come across as a blatant Chekhov's Pistol.

My only gripe is a minor one, and a consequence of the gamebook's being much more closely based on the accompanying story than the previous two. One thing that annoys me any time it happens in a mystery story is when the detective takes dozens of pages to figure out something obvious enough that I've already twigged it. There's an analogous bit here, where the set-up within the tomb is clearly designed to have a secret door activated by the solving of a puzzle, yet Asgrim completely fails to put two and two together, and laboriously smashes a hole in the wall. No doubt the gamebook will allow the option of using brains rather than brawn, but it was a bit irritating to have the set-up and no proper pay-off within the story.

The scenario, A Growl of Thunder, seems more cohesive than the one in The Screaming Spectre. Beyond that, there's not a lot I can say about it without GMing it, and I don't anticipate much opportunity of getting to do so.

And now for The Treasure of Chungor Khan, in which I get to participate in a different version of the events of The Tyrant's Tomb. The introduction warns that some things won't be the same as in the story: 'That is the nature of Chaos.'

My character comes ready-made, so there's no need to list stats. The adventure starts with me in a rather insalubrious tavern, overhearing a conversation between two rather unpleasant-sounding individuals, one of whom has lately (and rather violently) come into possession of a map. I listen long enough to find out that it's the map to a great treasure and then pop to the bar before either of the low-lifes notices me eavesdropping. At which point the text points out that I don't have the money for another drink, which I should really have already known. Might as well introduce myself to the rogues with the map, then.

They impolitely tell me to leave, so I threaten to spill beer on their map (a bluff, as I don't even have dregs in my tankard) and force them to let me join them. They introduce themselves as Grinch and Grivois, and explain that the map shows the way to a treasure-filled tomb, undisturbed to this day because of the curse laid upon the treasure. Being quite astute, they researched the precise wording of the curse, and learned that it threatened 'eternal damnation' for anyone who plunders the tomb. Given that their past misdemeanours have already qualified them for such a fate, that's not much of a deterrent to them. I'm less keen on the prospect myself, but I don't want to take the 'walk out' option, and my character's beliefs give him no fear of the snake goddess upon whom the curse depends.

Before setting off, I take a look around the market, learning that my insufficient-for-a-beer funds are more than enough to pay for a flask of water, a lantern and some garlic. That's one pricey establishment I was in.

There are three possible routes to the tomb's location: through the 'Swamp of Lost Souls', across the Ogre-infested mountain range, or south to the coast where I can hope to get passage on a ship. I pick the mountain path, and decide that the reputed danger of the pass is less to be feared than the definite hazards of mountaineering. A blizzard makes things rather unpleasant, but I avoid the light I see, as its colour (green) suggests that it's more likely to be of faerie origin that shining from a trapper's hut. I take some damage from the cold, but nothing I can't handle.

Beyond the pass, my path takes me close to a clump of trees, from which faint music drifts.  Could be another fae lure, so I don't linger. Nothing else of note happens before I reach the citadel of Tarkesh Varn, the last outpost of civilisation before the wastelands in which the tomb lies. My companions, who have gone unmentioned for a surprisingly long while, now use trickery to steal the map and get me into trouble with the citadel guards. As I'm taken to the dungeons, I learn that I'm to be executed for my 'crime', so I spend the night loosening a stone in the wall.

It's already getting light by the time I create a hole. I decide to try deception, and hide in the mound of bedding in the corner. It works, the hole leading the guards who come for me to assume that I've escaped. I sneak out of the door while they're fetching reinforcements, and make my departure once the search is under way in the wrong part of the fortress. On the way out I see the gallows that has been prepared for me, and opt not to take the time to find a weapon before leaving.

No longer having the map, I'm going to have to catch up with my erstwhile 'allies' if I'm to get any further. An arbitrary choice of directions is presented, and I choose poorly, getting lost in the desert and eventually dying. Not a very satisfactory ending.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

All Fall Down

I bought the 13th (and, as it turned out, final) issue of Warlock magazine in the newsagent's across and down the road from my school, and have a distinct memory of seeing the fake news report of a coup in the Warlock's palace (an indirect and obscure way to announce the discontinuation of the magazine) just after crossing back over the road. On a crossing - I wasn't quite so reckless as to just wander across a busy street with my head stuck in a magazine.

The mini-adventure, Tom Williams' The Temple of the Pharaoh, didn't make much of an impression on me. Proteus' rather good Treasures of the Cursed Pyramid had come out a couple of months before, and TTotP just wasn't as enjoyable as the rival magazine's Egyptian-themed adventure. My first attempt ended with my being captured and chained to a wall by two animated statues (which I'd already destroyed once) as punishment for going back somewhere I'd already been. I can't remember whether I was actually lost or knew I was retracing my steps and had a reason for doing so, but either way, I was not impressed. I didn't even get that far in my previous online attempt.

The adventure is set in the modern day, more or less. I'm an archaeologist, and after a year of unsuccessfully searching for the Temple of Pharaoh Terratakamen (whose nickname, King Terror, has more to do with his conduct than with the start of his full name), I discover a narrow cleft in some cliffs, the only way into a hidden valley that contains the temple I've been seeking. My plane crashes before I can report the discovery, though I survive unharmed, and in this condition:
Skill 12
Stamina 18
Luck 7
Rather than sit around waiting for the inevitable search party to come looking for me, I opt to have a look around the temple, erroneously thinking I'll be the first person to do so in centuries.

The place is in much better condition than I expect, and the door through the gates closes behind me on well-oiled hinges. No handle on this side, of course. I wait for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, because even if my character is completely clueless genre-wise, I know what sort of 'fun' to expect here. There are more gates ahead of me (locked), and smaller doors to north and south. Trying to break through the gate by which I came in isn't likely to help (has anyone ever written a gamebook in which trying to flee the adventure right at the start goes well?), and standing around in the gloom seems pretty futile, so I head south.

Beyond the door is a room containing a gold goblet, a bowl of warm gruel, a spear and a coil of rope. I can take just one of them with me (perhaps the express checkout at my local supermarket has an overly strict item limit, and I've become accustomed to only ever getting one thing at a time). The spear's of no use to me as I haven't yet lost any Skill, the bowl has no lid and would be tricky to carry around without spilling its contents, and I'm not sure that there's anything to gain by carting valuables around, so I take the rope.

Still reluctant to stand around doing nothing, I check out the north door next. This leads to a room with illustrated walls, the pictures showing people in ancient Egyptian garb torturing and killing others. Some of the victims appear to be wearing 20th-century clothing, but I assume that it's just the poor light that makes them look like that because I'm too idiotic to have twigged that this place is still inhabited, and occupied by people who aren't very nice.

A ladder leads to a room above, and since the only alternative is to go back to between the gates and wait for something to happen, I climb up. Windows look down on the temple courtyard, and I have no trouble attaching the rope to the sole bar across one of the windows, squeezing through the gap, and climbing down. It's hot outside, but an arcade provides shade on three sides of the courtyard. The east wall, however, is exposed to the sun, and has a number of dead people chained to it between a couple of statues.

I make for the north arcade, which turns out to be rather pleasantly decorated. A variety of valuable items are on display here, and I ignore the jewellery and tapestries because again I can only take one thing, and while my character may be clueless, I know that a mirror is more likely to be useful than an emerald ring.

Emerging from the shade, I continue to the east wall, and read the inscription on a statue's plinth, which basically spells out bad news for intruders. To justify the threat, the statues come to life, and I decide to see if the mirror will be of any help here. Yes, I use it to reflect the sun into the statues' eyes, dazzling them and making them easier to defeat in battle.

Musing on that inscription, I conclude that Terratakamen's spirit lives on and is holding court somewhere here. If I want to survive, I'm going to have to find and destroy him. Before going any further, I check out the corpses on the wall. Many are now skeletal, but there are three relatively fresh ones in contemporary clothing, one with a camera around its neck. This is the first one I examine, and I help myself to his camera bag, which contains a second camera, lenses and a flash gun, but only counts as a single item because it's all in the one bag or something.

It's probable that there's something nasty on one of the cadavers, so I skip the second one and turn my attention to the one with red hair. He has a notebook in one pocket, and I leaf through it, finding indications that going through the gates the statues were guarding is an excellent way to get Instant Deathed, and the safest route to the great hall is via the cellars, which can be accessed from the arcade. Bearing this in mind (and remembering what I found in the south arcade on my previous attempt), I head back to the north one to see if there's a trapdoor I missed.

No trapdoor, but I do notice that three of the paving stones echo more than the rest when I step on them, and conclude that there must be hollows beneath them. There's nothing to indicate that one is preferable to the others, but I note that the one by the third pillar has a section number without a 3 in, while the ones by the sixth and eighth pillars lead to sections 6 and 88 respectively, so I choose the odd one out. Which turns out to cover a shallow grave containing a corpse that's being eaten by ants, and I just stand there gaping idiotically until the ants swarm all over me and bite away a couple of Stamina points.

Plan B: eight is not a multiple of three, so I try the stone by the eighth pillar. Beneath it is a shaft, possibly once a well. There are handholds carved into the crumbling brick walls, but they look a bit precarious, and my Luck's uncomfortably low, so I try the other stone before risking investigating this one further. Beneath that one are steps leading down, so I descend them and proceed along a corridor with phosphorescent walls to a T-junction.

It's a bit of a maze down here, so I shan't describe every junction and turning. After a little while I get attacked by a lioness, which I recognise as Sekhmet. Perceiving me as a wrongdoer, she attacks, and I defend myself. After I've wounded her a few times, she vanishes, and I realise that I can no longer remember which way I was heading before the fight. Which is only possible thanks to a deplorable bit of authorial sneakiness that had me approaching a corner without being able to see which way the passage was turning. Picking a direction at random, the orientation of the next junction I reach suggests to me that I'm continuing forwards. Yep, definitely - I'd remember the long corridor I reach if I'd been along it before.

Turning my attention to the walls, I notice some loose stones, and pull on one. It comes away, revealing a cavity. Reluctant to just stick my hand in, I remove some more stones, hoping to be able to see if there's anything of use in there. The roof collapses on top of me.

No, I still prefer the Proteus adventure

Monday, 8 July 2013

The Riskier the Road, the Greater the Profit

I definitely got issue 8 of Proteus, Elizabeth Caldwell's Treasures of the Cursed Pyramid, on the way to school. Probably at the newsagent's across and down the road from the school, as I remember being in the hall outside the CCF armoury when choosing which jar to open, and that choice comes so early in the adventure that I'd almost certainly have read it on the way to school. Unless the weather was too bad for reading along the way, which is a possibility, as I also remember being in room D, my form room, when I reached the two coloured pools and rolled badly while looking into 'The Great Green Lake', and I'm not sure why I'd have been in there during (IIRC) the lunch break unless it was pretty miserable outdoors. (On the off-chance that anyone remembers my having said that my form room was room F in my previous Proteus playthrough, I shall just point out that issue 7 was released in July, towards the end of the academic year, and issue 8 came out in September, early in the next academic year, so I was in a new class.) By now I know that that bad roll made it impossible for me to win that try at the adventure, but as it turned out, I never got far enough for it to matter, as I ran into the non-lethal fail ending in the maze.

I have three attributes in this adventure: the standard Dexterity and Strength, plus Charm, which reflects my ability to resist malign influences. And they are:
Dexterity 11
Strength 20
Charm 8
Not too bad, especially as Charm can rise above the Initial value to a maximum of 12.

I start in the bazaar at Kiroona, lost and fed up, and resigned to taking a look at the Relics and Curiosities stall that I've been unsuccessfully trying to avoid. A book catches my eye, but the stall-keeper attempts to dissuade me from looking in it. Probably just a sales technique, as I doubt that he'd have the book on display if he didn't want to sell it. Or did whatever influence kept driving me back to the stall also compel him to put out the book despite not wanting to let it fall into the wrong hands? I rather like the ambiguity of what's really going on here.

The book turns out to be the diary of ex-adventurer Saal Merik, and I buy it despite the stall-keeper's protests, after which I have no difficulty finding my way out of the bazaar and back to the inn where I'm staying. There I read the diary, which is an account of Merik's expedition to the Pyramid of Ptah-Hotep. It ends rather abruptly, though that turns out to be because the last pages are stuck together with wax. Carefully separating them, I discover that Merik discovered a concealed entrance to a sealed-off section of the Pyramid, but decided against exploring further because of the warning inscribed upon it. The sealed-off section imprisons 'the accursed Spirit of Seth, Incarnation of Evil' (who may be better known to you as Set, or Sutekh if you're an aficionado of 20th century Doctor Who). It also holds the bulk of Ptah-Hotep's treasure, but Merik chose not to try and get the loot because doing so risked calling down the Curse of Seth, not only on himself but upon all humanity. There is a way to avert the curse, but Merik was unable to translate the incantation which cancels the curse (so it must be written in a different hieroglyphic alphabet to the one the warning was in, as he translated the warning, and I know from past attempts at the adventure that one of the words in the incantation is also in the warning). My character does not share his qualms, and decides to use the notes and maps in the diary to try and find the sealed-off section

On the subject of old adventurers' artefacts, I have two incomplete maps of the pyramid from past attempts. I suspect that I wasn't playing to win on either occasion: when I was younger, I had a bit of an obsession with one of the 'fail' endings, and the maps go as far as the point at which the ending in question occurs, which suggests to me that I made a concerted effort to fall at that specific hurdle during those 'tries' at the adventure.

They're not to the same scale, obviously.
And I appear to have overlooked the second door in the south wall of Apep's room in the second one.
And drawn the first chamber as a junction in the first. Sloppy cartography.

Anyway, I gather together standard adventurer's paraphernalia and set off to the pyramid. Once inside, I eventually reach a chamber from which two flights of steps lead on. The hidden section of the pyramid is to the north, but the dead end to the east merits investigation first. Those stairs lead to a chamber containing a stone chest, which holds four stone jars, each with its top carved into the likeness of a different creature. I open the one with the jackal head in the hope of being reminded of a detail that eludes me. At once the jar transforms into a jackal-headed being, who tells me to beware the animals of the desert. That wasn't the advice I'd been hoping for, but after the message is delivered, the speaker and the other jars all vanish.

Returning to the first chamber, I take the north exit, which leads me to a junction. Merik's map indicates that both turnings loop round and terminate in the same room, and my maps show that I can find something of use if I go east, so that's what I do. On one of the walls are the hieroglyphs that come right at the end of the incantation I seek, and beneath them has been scratched a translation, which I note down.

The corridor eventually takes me into the room that contains Ptah-Hotep's sarcophagus - well, the outer stone chest. Everything else has been taken by tomb robbers or archaeologists. A sub-chamber to the north contains a statue of a jackal, and the hidden door I seek, but the means for opening it is on the sarcophagus. It has two stylised eyes carved into it, both of which can be pushed inwards. Pick the correct one, and the door will open. get the wrong one, and the jackal statue will animate and attack. And I'd know which eye to press if I'd chosen the right jar, but as it is, I'll have to guess.

Well, I said 'guess', but now I see the choice I realise that my memory for section numbers is better than my memory for directions, so I know which one not to push based on which section it would take me to. Pressing the other eye causes the jackal statue's pedestal to slide aside, revealing stairs down to the concealed door. Ignoring the warning on it, I open the door and step through. It closes behind me with a thud like a sarcophagus lid.

As a result of my not having lost any Charm (which would have been the more serious consequence of pressing the wrong eye), I spot something in the dust on the floor. This is a gold ring with a softly glowing pearl set into it, and I gain a Charm point for having it. Carrying on, I reach a junction and again go east. This passage ends in a featureless stone door, with a chain hanging beside it. So I ignore the chain and try to push the door open. It doesn't work, but while pushing, I notice faint carvings that provide me with a bit more of the incantation.

I then go back to the junction and west. Not a necessary action: I'd still be in with a good chance of beating the adventure if I'd pulled the chain to open the door, but the western path will enable me to find an item that I consider more useful than what may be acquired by continuing east. This isn't as 'one true path' an adventure as many are.

The passage leads to a room with three doors set into the north wall. If I'd picked a different jar, I'd have been told of the best option whenever I'm faced with a choice of three items. It's more memorable advice than which eye to press, so I'd still know the door to pick even if it weren't on one of my old maps. It opens onto a room with one other exit, and a golden box in the middle. Naturally I open the box, and a jet of fire singes me. As I recoil, a golden, fire-spitting Asp emerges. This is the Uraeus of Ra, and if I can subdue it, it will attack my enemies for me. Well, one of them. I only need to hit it twice to defeat it, and despite having a higher Dexterity, I take several wounds in the course of the fight. I do win, though, and will thus have an easier time in a forthcoming battle. And there's something else in the box which heals all damage inflicted by the Uraeus, so it doesn't matter that I didn't do that well in the fight. Not forgetting the golden staff that will save me from getting into another three fights later on...

The door north leads to an east-west corridor. Another two doors lead south into the rooms through which I just didn't pass, but even if I had the option of trying one, I don't think there's anything to be gained by doing so. Instead, I head east. The passage turns north and ends in a door, so I go through it into a room containing a pool of water. A second door leads south, and there are other exits to west and north. Faded hieroglyphs adorn the walls, one collection of symbols standing out as if they've recently been restored. Of course they're part of the incantation, with a translation conveniently appended.

That pool of water then gets my attention, largely because of the monstrous serpent currently emerging from it. The Uraeus springs into action, recognising Apep, the Eternal Enemy of its original owner, and burns the serpent. Apep drops back into the pool to douse the flames, then emerges again, but is now so weakened that I finish it off with ease. Beside the pool I find four valuable amulets of no further relevance to the adventure.

Leaving through the west door, I head down a corridor to a door with two pools painted on it, one green, one blue. I go through into a room containing two small pools of liquid - guess the colours. Looking into the green one, which is labelled with hieroglyphs that Merik's notes enable me to translate as 'The Great Green Lake', I see a vision. A random vision, with only a 50% chance of getting the one I need if I'm to have a chance of winning. Luck is not with me, but I don't get the worst possible outcome, just a vision of a white-clad woman with a musical instrument, who beckons to me. The sight of her fills me with inexplicable dread, causing me to look away from the pool, and when I glance back, the vision is over.

I'm pretty sure that it's futile, but I look into the other pool anyway. This one is named 'Millions of Years', and its blueness fills my head until I pass out and find myself in an infinitely long hall, filled with beast-headed men in chairs. Beside me is a huge pair of scales, and a woman in green leads me onto one pan of the scales, then steps onto the other. I succeed at the Charm roll, so the scales balance (meaning that unless I weigh the same as a duck, the woman's not a witch, right?) and I am permitted to return to the real world.

I find myself back by the pool, and the text says that I may only look at the green one if I haven't already done so. No second chance of getting the right vision, so I've failed, though the end is yet to come. I think I'll try to repeat the way my first attempt ended, as that leaves my character alive and doesn't get all humanity cursed, so as failures go, it's not too horrific. I leave through the north door, and the corridor turns east and leads into a room with doors in all four walls, though the doors to north and south are barred. In the middle of the room is a pedestal with a feather made of gold and silver on it. I don't need the feather - the vision I had in the Great Green Lake would cause me to automatically avoid the threat against which it provides protection - and can't be bothered with the fight that taking it would trigger, so I just pass through the room.

A corridor leads east. After a while I reach a point where a passage leads south, and there's a door opposite it. Going south is not an option, and continuing east is pointless, so I open the door and step through. It closes behind me, and there's no way of opening it from this side, so I continue north, noting that the air here is rather stale. Finding more hieroglyphs, I learn that I've entered the maze of Ptah-Hotep, and I have a limited period in which to find the true exit. Sand starts spilling through slits at the top of the walls: if I don't get out of here soon enough, I'll be buried alive.

This is one of my favourite gamebook mazes, actually. The design is quite simple, but the time limit adds a distinct element of urgency to the search for the way out. No wandering around in circles for ages - if I don't find the exit quickly (and there's time for a wrong turning or two, but not much leeway), it's game over.

From the entrance, the only way ahead is north. That leads to a crossroads, from which I go north again, to a corner which turns west (more than a fifth of my time is up). Hurrying round the corner, I reach a crossroads (over a quarter of my time gone) and head north again. That takes me to a T-junction (and past the one-third time marker), and I go west again. To a dead end, but before I can turn back, a trapdoor opens beneath me, dropping me into a sloping circular tunnel with smooth walls. I slide helplessly until I hit the wall at the bottom of the chute, which pivots, dumping me outside the pyramid, and then seals behind me. That was not the true exit, but getting evicted from the pyramid is preferable to suffocating in sand or dooming all humanity.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Every Country Must Be Equally Horrible

The second of  J.H. Brennan's Horror Classics gamebooks, The Curse of Frankenstein, seems an appropriate title to end a week in which I've already played as a Goblin and a 'foul creature', as this book gives me the opportunity to assume the rôle of one of literature's most famous monsters - the one created by the eponymous scientist.

My friend Simon (previously mentioned here) got this book before I did, and as we trudged to school one morning, he read out the text and I made the decisions. While this attempt at the book didn't get very far (I remember encountering some Esquimaux and being curious about what made the woman in their midst so confident that she could deal with me if I started causing trouble - but not curious enough to risk getting hostile and finding out), it indicated to me that this series was fun, like the author's Grail Quest books, rather than overcomplicated and difficult like his Sagas of the Demonspawn. So I bought my own copy, and got the other one in the series (do two books constitute a series?) as well. I have vague memories of reading some of the more climactic sections of this one while waiting to see someone at the employment agency where I got part-time weekend jobs to help fund my gamebook-buying, though that may have been some time after I got the book.

TCoF's approach to the Frankenstein story blends together elements of Mary Shelley's text and popular myth regarding the principal characters. Thus, the adventure is set in the polar regions where the novel (and very few of the adaptations) concludes, but I have a bolt through my neck. I also have the following stats
Life Points: 100 (as standard)
Speed: 4
Courage: 6
Strength: 5
Skill: 2
Psi: 3
And in addition to a spare head, heart, liver, intestine and left foot (all of which (bar the foot) can be used to provide healing when needed), I have a rope, a box of matches and an axe.

I trudge through the trackless wastes, aware that the mad scientist who brought me into being is here, seeking to destroy me, and come to the conclusion that I need to take the initiative and kill him first. Heading south, I find the ice beneath my feet creaking and threatening to give way, so I beat a hurried retreat, and turn west instead. That leads to an unremarkable selection of rock formations, from which I take a chance on heading southwest. That leads to a sturdy log hut - sufficiently sturdy that I can't break down the door. Pinned to the door is a note in code, and the lone 'B' that is the fourth word makes it easy to work out how it has been encoded. That tells me that I need a key (and which section to turn to if I have it), so I make a mental note to return when I find the key.

Again I go south - might as well be methodical in exploring. Unless I get any indication that this region is as nonsensically structured as the tomb in Grail Quest book 7, but that's a rant for another day. This leads me to the coast, so I can't go any further in that direction. I've not yet been to whatever's between the hut and the broken ice, so I opt to check that out next. Just more coastline. Makes sense, but if the key had been here, I'd have had a frustrating time if I'd missed that one location.

Back past the hut and further west, I find another seafront. Okay then, what's due north of the hut? More trackless wastes. I appear to have found one of the less eventful regions within the setting. Heading northwest, I almost lose my left foot, but notice that it's coming loose, and reattach it. Just because I have a spare, that doesn't mean I can afford to be careless. Oddly, I may not go back the way I came from here (not that I particularly want to, but geographical anomalies like that can become problematic), so I try going southwest.

This leads me to an apparently deserted ship, held fast in the ice. Now, I know that the endgame takes place on or close to a ship, but I'm not sure whether it's this one or a less derelict one. I'll take a chance on climbing the dangling rope ladder anyway. For the moment I'll ignore the trapdoors set into the deck, and try the regular door that's close by. Behind it is a drunken sailor, who launches into an attack, apparently having mistaken me for his mother-in-law. Some pretty shabby rolling means that this pathetic opponent hacks me down to less than half of my starting Life before I overcome him. He's too pickled to die from the beating I (eventually) administer, but lapses into unconsciousness after mumbling that I'll never get away from the Baron unless I shink his hip. Which is either indicative of a peculiar Achilles-like weakness that I could exploit if only I knew how to shink, or a drink-muddled indication that I should be sinking the ship.

Continuing my exploration, I find and (in the course of vigorous searching) wreck numerous empty cabins. The book offers the option of abandoning this seemingly fruitless search. Now, sometimes when Mr. Brennan says that something looks like a waste of time, persistence reveals it to have been worthwhile after all, and other times it's as unproductive as it looked. But either way, I'll heal an extra 3 Life just for turning to the 'keep searching' section, so provided I don't uncover anything harmful or lethal (also a possibility), it'll be worth checking. And I turn up a bottle of medicinal brandy, which will restore some Life Points but may also make me drunk enough to impair my performance in the next fight.

Returning to the deck, I then head for the bridge, which has been trashed in a fight. Catching sight of a ceramic box, I try to open it, but my clumsy monster hands (and low Skill) cause me to crush it and its contents into powder. I wonder what I just destroyed.

The first trapdoor leads into the cargo hold, which contains only food. Unusually for a gamebook character, I'm not interested. Though the description of the deck mentions a second trapdoor in the stern, I don't get the option of checking it out when I head there, being too intent on the signs that further violence occurred here in the past. Despite the thickness of the anchor chain, it's been snapped, and I get a vague impression that I may have been here and done something a bit naughty a while back.

Having exhausted the possibilities offered by the ship, and not wishing to take unfair advantage of the healing rules by wandering around the barren coastline until I return to full health, I go north. And find a new stretch of barren coastline. Should I start heading back east, or see how much further north this westernmost extremity extends? Well, it's northeast rather than straight north, but I head that way in any case.

A bizarre metamorphic rock formation lies ahead. As I gape at the sight, a bullet is fired at me, so I seek shelter among the twisted spires of stone. Narrowly avoiding getting stuck in one of the narrower crevices, I eventually reach a dead end. Still, I've evaded the lone sniper, and some lunatic has preceded me here and chiselled a rather bad poem into the rock. Could it be the Poetic Fiend from the Grail Quest series? Regardless, the verse indicates that the key I seek may be found at mountains of madness (hopefully without any Lovecraftian nasties guarding it), and after facing the dangers of the log hut I must head 'To place where heat melts all the snow'.

From here I can only go south or east, and I don't think I've yet seen what lies due south, so... Just more trackless wastes, but unfamiliar section numbers to all directions but the one from which I've just come, so I'd better just check that I've not missed anything important west of here. A wise decision, as I find an abandoned campsite. One used by the Baron, as I find his lucky coin there. This prompts melancholy reminiscences on my relationship with him (and a pun about the two of us never seeing eye to eye because of our differing heights), but the coin is worth hanging on to, as it can give a +2 bonus to rolls of the dice. Not so useful when I need to roll low, but the 'allows' in the text implies that the bonus is optional.

Going southeast leads me to a cliff, with four openings in it. A trick of the light makes it look a lot like a giant skull. If I remember rightly, there's something I need in there, but I can't get it without other items from elsewhere, so I shan't go in just yet.

To the east I find the first lot of rock formations I encountered. I think north is the only way I haven't yet gone from there. That eventually leads me into a thick bank of fog. Now, the main adventure in issue 15 of Proteus contains at least four paths that lead into mist and thence Instant Death by cliff-drop, so I'm a bit wary here. There was an unexpected cliff edge in the other Horror Classics book, too. Would Mr. Brennan have included variants on the same 'trap' in both? I'm about to find out, because that fog could be a by-product of the heat referred to in the poem, so it's worth checking to see if there's somewhere I need to visit on the other side of the fog bank.

There is a cliff. The good news is that reaching it is not automatically lethal: the outcome depends on a roll of the dice. And low is bad, so the lucky coin will help me here. In fact, I have almost as little chance of plummeting to my doom here as I did of falling to my death on the stairs in Creature of Havoc earlier this week. To die twice in quick succession as a result of unlikely rolls leading to a fatal drop is highly unlikely. But not, alas, impossible and, at odds of (I believe) 1 in 432, it's what just happened.

Despite the stretches of inactivity, that wasn't anything like as frustrating as Dracula's Castle became by the end of my second try here. I'm vaguely looking forward to the distant date on which I'll be attempting it again. I just hope it won't take as many retries as there were Hammer Films sequels to their first Frankenstein movie.