Monday, 30 September 2013

Some Things You're Not Supposed to Get Used to

I completely missed the publication of the Virtual Reality Adventures series. Partly because the books came out during the period when I'd stopped getting gamebooks, and partly because I was studying in Germany during that period, so whatever presence the VRAs had in bookshops had no opportunity to register with me. I first became aware of the series a couple of years later, when I was back in Swansea. Some of the books turned up in a charity shop on St. Helen's Road - one of the four or five near the junction with Brynymor Road. They caught my attention, at least partly because I recognised the names Dave Morris and Mark Smith on the spines, and I took a look at them, but I was still in my off-gamebooks phase, and novelty value didn't have as much weight as nostalgia, so the books went back on the shelf, and before long they'd been sold.

One of the books I didn't buy at that time was the second one in the series, Dave Morris'  Down Among the Dead Men. A while later, I came across another copy of it while browsing in the second-hand bookshop up the hill from the coach station in Birmingham. By then I'd read a different book from the series during one of my short-lived re-engagements with the genre, so there was a bit more of a draw, but I still wound up reshelving the book before resuming my journey. When I properly got back into gamebooks and decided to add VRA to my collection, I wound up getting DAtDM on eBay.

The only thing I can remember from my first attempt at it is the quandary I experienced when my character, lacking the Folklore skill, was unable to pick up on certain hints that were blatantly obvious to me, the reader. So should I play the part and expose my character to a threat of which I was all too aware, improve my chances of succeeding by evading the danger my character knew nothing about, or come up with a weak rationalisation to enable my character to do the right thing for the wrong reason? As I recall, I went off to do something else while mulling over the question, and never actually got back to that try at the book.

In the past I've always gone for one of the pre-generated characters provided in the book when attempting a VRA, but since Mr. Morris has stated that it should be possible to win his books with any combination of skills, I'll try creating my own character for once. That means picking four Skills from the list and equipping myself with whatever equipment is required for the use of those skills. The equipment thing is a bit odd, given that my character will be starting out as a slave on a pirate ship - what sort of pirate captain is going to allow his slaves to own any or all of the following: sword, pistol, magic wand, magic amulet? I'm tempted to create just so well-equipped a slave, but even if it is possible to win with as unbalanced a set of Skills as would be required, I'd need to know the book a lot better than I do to have any chance of finding the path that would take me to victory. So I'll go for the more practical-looking set-up of:
Brawling
Cunning
Seafaring
Wilderness Lore
No doubt it is my Cunning that has enabled me to acquire and retain 10 doubloons despite my circumstances.

I've been an unwilling member of Skarvench's crew for around two years, ever since he attacked the ship on which I was travelling and shot me in the head. Nursed back to health by the ship's carpenter, I was pressed into service, and have been having a pretty miserable time ever since. Things change when Skarvench decides to destroy a defenceless ship full of monks, and the carpenter defies him and is murdered for doing so. I vocalise my intent to make the captain pay for his crimes a little more loudly than is wise, but am only overheard by a few sailors who share my loathing of the pirate, and let me in on their plans to jump ship tonight. Considering how far from land we are, it's probably a suicidal endeavour, but still preferable to remaining part of the crew, so I agree to join the would-be escapees.

To improve our chances, I take the risk of sneaking into a part of the ship where I'll have a chance to pilfer some supplies. This involves creeping past Skarvench's cabin, and I overhear him revealing his most audacious plan yet to his cronies: Queen Titania of Glorianne will soon be touring the colonies, and he intends to capture and ransom her. Idle boasting not being one of the captain's vices, I must assume that he has some plan for dealing with the various different protectors the Queen has, but if I loiter in the hope of getting a clue about that, I'm likely to have to skip getting supplies, and I need to survive before I can start thinking about thwarting his plans, so I carry on to the sailmaster's cabin. Which turns out not to be as unoccupied as I'd expected. But the occupant is only the ship's mascot, a monkey named Mister Chatter, and despite the name, I don't expect him to tell anyone what I'm up to.

Not that monkeys are incapable of giving the game away.

There's a list of potentially useful items in the cabin, and I can take two of them. Seafaring will probably enable me to navigate by the stars, so I'll leave the lodestone. Practical uses for a monkey are too limited to justify taking Mister Chatter. The toolkit could prove essential for keeping the boat we steal seaworthy, so I'll definitely take that. Charts might be as redundant as the lodestone, but if I'm wrong about that, things are unlikely to go well for us, so I think I'd better take them instead of the crucifix.

I rejoin my co-conspirators - Grimes, Oakley and Blutz - and we lower the jollyboat, board it and row away. And it turns out that Seafaring is an adequate substitute for the charts after all, so maybe I should have taken the crucifix. Or Bardsmanship the monkey (apologies to everyone who's not going to get that in-joke). I consider the different routes we can take from here: one is quick but through stormy seas, the next is safer but might take so long that the food runs out, and the last one involves visiting lots of islands and potentially encountering regrettable stereotypes. I'll risk the third one.

As we start our voyage west through the Smoking Islands, Oakley reveals what he knows of them. The most distant has friendly natives, the one before it is reputed to be the home of a demon, to the east of that one is the volcano you'd expect to find somewhere in a region with 'Smoking' in its name, and closest to us is Red Skull Island, which is too far from the main shipping lanes for the natives to have had much contact with 'civilized' man. If I had Folklore, I could add to Oakley's information, but as I don't, I'll just have to wonder whether Red Skull Island is home to cannibals or a giant orang-utan.

Wilderness Lore keeps me from taking damage from the heat while we make our way to the islands, and it's not too long before we catch sight of Red Skull island. Oakley now tells us that the inhabitants are cannibals, but we're already thirsty enough that I'm prepared to risk a brief stop there. We find a secluded beach, but as I don't have the Agility to climb the cliffs to the coconut trees we can see up on top, and the longer we loiter, the greater the risk of being found by the locals, the only palatable thing we can get is a couple of crabs - barely enough to feed even one of us. The brief character descriptions of my fellow escapees provided earlier indicated that Oakley could potentially be a threat to my authority, and implied that I'd need to assert myself to keep him from causing trouble, so I risk eating the crabs myself. This does not go down well with the others (no pun intended).

We return to the boat and go further, and Seafaring limits the damage I take from the ongoing hardships. When we reach the volcanic island, the others are reluctant to put to shore, but Wilderness Lore tells me that the volcano has been quiet for a long time, so the island should be as safe as houses. Okay, so there were houses in Pompeii, but...

I risk making a stop to check out the vegetation that indicated the lack of recent eruptions, and we gather two days' worth of edible foliage. Our departure is delayed by the discovery that Skarvench's ship is approaching. I doubt that he's followed us specifically, which means that this island probably plays a part in his plan, so I decide to spy on the men he sends ashore. He accompanies the party, and they start digging up some treasure. Under current circumstances, an attack would almost certainly get us killed, so I just keep watching. It can be inferred from the options here that if I'd brought the monkey, he would now attract unwelcome attention.

Oakley thinks it odd that Skarvench should be exhuming money right now, and expresses a wish to be close enough to overhear what the pirate and his subordinates are saying. Cunning should help me to sneak up on them... Nope, it's Wilderness Lore that saves me from treading on a twig and alerting the pirates to my proximity. Thus I learn that the loot that's being exhumed is to pay for a new ship, and as a bribe for the Queen's wizard, Mirabilis. The revelation of this treachery does not prompt me to make a suicidal attack.

We stay on the island for a week before the volcano's rumblings suggest that it might be wise to move on. The supplies we gathered help sustain us on the way to the next island (and if things had gone very differently, we could have eaten the monkey!). Grimoire Island looks remarkably well-cultivated, and I decide to investigate despite the rumours of its being home to a demon.

Blutz notices a tower, while Wilderness Lore enables me to spot that the carefully tended plants are all poisonous, so I warn my companions against eating. Somehow I get the impression that visitors are not entirely welcome. Nevertheless, we press on towards the tower, and Grimes speculates that the marble from which it is constructed (with a few none-too-cheery carvings by the entrance) was brought here, not quarried locally. A woman acknowledges that he's right, introduces herself as Ejada, and then says that as payment for coming here, one of us must let her sacrifice his soul to her mother, the earth goddess. Oakley makes a futile attack on her, and she says we must choose by dawn.

The jollyboat has been immobilised by the woman's magic, and I doubt that building a raft will make escape any easier. Hiding looks pretty futile, so I'm going to confront Ejada at dawn and see if we can find the non-sacrificial way out of this situation. It's not a viable option, but I do wonder if she would accept the soul of a monkey. It appears not: the options are to run, fight, offer her 25% of the soul of each of us, or use Spells if that's one of my Skills. Fighting didn't help Oakley, but maybe I can come up with a better strategy than 'charge at her brandishing a rock'. My Brawling Skill leads to my making some fairly un-PC threats, and she defies me to hit her as hard as I can. Other modes of attack are also open to me, and I reckon a bodyslam might wind her enough to prevent her retaliating with magic, so I attempt to pick her up - in a non-romantic sense. Ejada puts up a struggle, but I manage to lift her from the ground, and discover that she has roots! Uprooted, she weakens, and offers all her treasure in return for putting her back down. Not convinced that she'll keep her word once able to draw power from the earth again, I stow her on a convenient cornice while we loot the tower, finding a wand, a healing potion, a ship in a bottle (could be useful if it's anything like the one from Mr. Morris' The Eye of the Dragon) and a black kite.

The boat springs leaks as we voyage onwards, and the tool kit is of no assistance. Everyone on the boat becomes irritable, and we use up the last of our food supplies before reaching the final island. Grimes reminds me that the people here are said to be hospitable, and my character cynically wonders if they'll welcome a bunch of castaways as cheerfully as they do the fully manned, heavily armed and cargo-laden vessels that have spread the tales of their friendliness. I decide to give them a chance to prove their reputation, and a spear-carrying party approaches. Remembering a couple of SF wars that started because humans assumed hostile intent where there was none, I try talking rather than preemptively attacking. The natives bring us some fruit (which some might still interpret as a hostile move, but the mangoes haven't been sharpened, so I think we're all right) and repair our boat.

The chief indicates to us that a long while passes between visits from large vessels, so we might be stuck here for a while if we wait for someone to pick us up. If we'd rather move on, he could have us escorted to a major shipping lane (in return for a suitable gift), or we can just set off on our own. I don't think that wand will do me any good, as I don't have Spells, but would it satisfy the chief? Yes, it does. In fact, any of Ejada's treasures bar the potion would do, but I think the others are more likely to be worth holding on to.

After a few more days we sight and are accepted on board the Gloriannic ship Jewel of Heaven. In conversation with the Captain, I mention the Queen's impending tour, and he's alarmed to hear talk of such a well-kept secret. Hurriedly pointing out that it's nowhere near as well-kept as it should be, considering how I learned it, I gain an ally in my quest to thwart Skarvench.

By the time the Jewel docks at Leshand, I've regained what health I lost during the less pleasant parts of our voyage. And the adventure comes to an abrupt end as my companions refuse to have anything more to do with me, as I'm not a good enough man. Sure, I helped them find food on an island they wouldn't have dared to visit but for my knowledge, I saved them from poisoning on another island, and fought a powerful Enchantress rather than sacrifice anyone's soul, but all of that pales into insignificance by comparison with my having eaten two small crabs. So much for needing to exert my authority.

Well, despite that disappointing ending, Down Among the Dead Men has done a lot to dispel the bad impression made by the first VRA. I'd be feeling a lot more positive about the series if I weren't already familiar with the next title - but that's a rant for another day.

Yes, this post should really have gone up last Friday, but life is full of things. Still, if my next attempt at an adventure goes as well as most of my Tunnels & Trolls escapades have gone, I should be able to get that entry out of the way very quickly and be back on schedule by the end of the week.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Rather Childish Really

Martin Allen's Sky Lord is the only Fighting Fantasy gamebook I never acquired back when I was originally collecting the series. The cover illustration and blurb didn't make it look particularly appealing, and a more-detailed-than-usual look through a copy in the shop did nothing to convince me that it was worth giving the book a try, so I put it back on the shelf.

When I got back into gamebooks for good, I soon learned that Sky Lord was one of the least popular books in the series. My opinion doesn't always match up with fan consensus, so I decided to get a copy when the opportunity arose, just in case it turned out to be better than the crowd considered it. Not long after I got involved in trading gamebooks, one of my contacts in America acquired a duplicate copy of the book, and I picked up a Solve It Yourself gamebook he was after from a local charity shop to swap for it. Later that year I made my first trip to America, so to avoid the cost of international postage, we arranged for him to send Sky Lord and the other stuff he'd got for me in the interim (mostly DC comics) to someone I'd be meeting during my stay, and I took everything I'd collected for him in my luggage, and posted it to him while I was over there. The friend who brought me the book subsequently stuck wasabi-coated peas up her nose to see what would happen. I mention this odd behaviour because it's the sort of thing that would be offered as an option in the book.

Anyway, I had a quick diceless go at the book, and my character got devoured by a blob. Later I played it by the rules, and started to understand just why it has such a poor reputation. The system governing spaceship combat isn't the worst rule in all FF (that dubious honour probably goes to Chasms of Malice's One-Strike Combat), but it is ridiculously biased in the opponent's favour. And then there's the way that so many of the decisions are completely arbitrary, whimsical or utterly nonsensical. I think the furthest I've ever got through the book is being consumed by the same blob that brought my first attempt to an end because I grabbed the wrong random items while being pursued by it.

My character is a grey-eyed, four-armed being from the planet Ensulina, a veteran of military campaigns and secret missions, selected for a hazardous quest. Fugitive genetic engineer and cyberneticist L'Bastin has been traced to the artificial fortress-world of Aarok, where he seems to have succeeded in his goal of creating the perfect life-form, and is now cloning an army of dog-headed superwarriors for galactic conquest and revenge on former employer King Vaax. L'Bastin is one of the better elements of the book, with a more coherent motivation than most gamebook villains (initially just a curious experimenter, turning to crime to fund his research) and an entertainingly warped sense of humour (the first stage of his revenge after losing his job, home and laboratory involved grafting a pineapple onto the Queen's head - you'd never see the likes of Razaak doing anything that unconventionally nasty).

Aarok is one of those 'too well-defended for a full-scale assault, but a lone operative might just be able to get in' enemy bases, and as the best of the Knights of Ensulina, I've been selected as that operative. But what does the best look like?
Skill 11
Stamina 19
Luck 8
Rating 4
Rating indicates my degree of proficiency in starship combat, and I have the highest possible starting score. Which will still put me at a significant disadvantage in the first ship-based fight I get into, no matter what decisions precede the inevitable battle.

Anyway, I set off on my mission, and must choose a dimension through which to travel. If I pick the 6th dimension I'll have to deal with that blob again (assuming I last that long), but in the 4th dimension I'll wind up at a point where there's something like a 1 in 3 chance of having my ship blown up by an incompetent engineer (unless I die before that happens). Well, nowadays I'm more clued up on the blob's weaknesses than I was the last time it defeated me, so I'll risk travelling through light-space.

A short time into my journey, my ship is attacked by the creature from the cover illustration, a thrill-seeking Fahbad Redneck from the 33rd plane. Thanks to the imbalance in the rules, he has a 5 in 6 chance of hitting me each round, while the odds of my hitting him are just 50%. I only need to hit him four times to destroy him, whereas he needs to score six hits to blow me up, but that still puts the odds in his favour. And I only manage to hit him three times before he gets that sixth hit on me, so it's another rapid game over. My previous online attempt lasted a bit longer, but only a bit.

Not all bad reputations are undeserved.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Slave to Fate, Chance, Kings, and Desperate Men

Someone in my family must have been ill when Proteus issue 10 came out, as I remember being in the waiting room at the doctor's while flicking through my newly-acquired copy. I had a tendency to get particularly nasty coughs during winter, so the visit to the doctor may well have been on my behalf, but it's also possible that I was accompanying some other unwell family member. In any case, that's where I was when I discovered that it was a bad idea to smash the soul-trapping mirror, as doing so released all the souls trapped in it, which promptly sought to inhabit the nearest available body - my character's - leading to insanity and death.

So that was how I first failed The Triad of Evil, by Elizabeth Caldwell (with the assistance of R.B. Newton). Not one of Ms. Caldwell's better adventures, though a quick look at my review of it suggests that it's not as bad as memory makes out. Still, not having played it since I wrote the review 9 years ago, I doubt that I'll be able to remember the route which avoids the 'roll a double six or die' encounter, so I'm not expecting to do very well.

The citadel of Llamar was once the home of the Knights of the Jewelled Heart, a powerful force for good. Then one of the Knights fell ill, which somehow enabled the Dark Powers to conquer the citadel, which has remained under their control ever since. My character is a descendant of one of the Knights, as was my father. He attempted to destroy the beings that now inhabit the citadel, and presumably died in the attempt. Now I'm embarking on the same quest because otherwise the citadel's inhabitants will try to take over the world. Okay, so since taking the citadel, they've just stayed in there minding their own business, but they must be plotting world domination, right? I mean, that's what bad guys do.

So what does the latest champion of Light look like?
Dexterity 11
Strength 20
Valour 12
Valour always starts at 12, and there are no direct harmful consequences to having it drop to 0. Which is a good thing, as points are generally lost as a consequence of encountering monsters, rather than failure to act in a sufficiently pure-in-heart manner.

It's unclear exactly how long ago the citadel fell, but the fact that the catacombs inhabited by the invaders are accessed by means of an 'old but sturdy' staircase that must post-date the assault gives some indication that it has been a long while. I descend to an east-west corridor, and spot a poem carved onto the wall. The metre's all over the place, and rhyming 'aid you' and 'with you' is a bit weak, but it's by no means the worst verse I've ever encountered in a gamebook. As regards content, it's basically a checklist of items that will or might be needed by anyone seeking to destroy the Dark Ones. From past attempts, I know that the Eye of Truth mentioned there isn't actually helpful, and I consider it worse than useless, given the Valour cost of the visions it inspires: Valour loss can still be harmful if it results in my failing a roll at some point.

After memorising the poem, I realise that it's written in my father's handwriting (so either he did a lot of chiselling out messages, or the differences between stone-carving and using a pen are being overlooked), and vow revenge. Not that seeing the poem gives any indication of precisely what fate befell him - it doesn't end in 'Aargh!' or anything along those lines. In fact, as I recall, this is the last time that my father's ill-fated expedition comes up: there's no opportunity to find his remains or go all Inigo Montoya on his slayer, no shock revelation that he has been corrupted by the Dark Powers and become an antagonist, nothing but the poem and the wasted potential.

I go east and come across a cell which holds a cadaverous (yet still living) Knight of the Jewelled Heart, who turns 'skull-like eyes' on me. I speak with him, learning that he is the man whose weakness led to the fall of the citadel. He's been cursed with immortality and locked in here to try and dissuade the likes of me from going any further. In a display of villain overconfidence, the Dark Ones also allow him to provide assistance to those who will not turn back, so I must choose between an incantation and an object. All being well, my stats should suffice against the monster repelled by the incantation, so I go for the item, a glowing green jewel in the shape of a heart. Promising to do what I can to end the man's torment (a promise that has just as much of a bearing on the rest of the adventure as my father's fate), I follow the corridor as it turns north.

Icicles fall on me, dislodged by the sound of my stomping along the corridor, so I resolve to tread more carefully in future. A side turning leads back west, and I head along it because a straight line is almost never the best route to follow in gamebooks. The passage leads to a door, behind which is a room containing a grotesque monstrosity known as the Soul Eater. Not possessing any James Brown albums with which to distract it (nor having learned the Knight's incantation), I have to fight. It's not a particularly formidable foe, so long as it never gets a double 6 - which it doesn't - and I kill it without taking any damage.

There's a silver key lying on the floor, so I pocket that. The door by which I entered has no means of opening from this side, likewise the one opposite, but there is a door in the north wall. It has a diamond-studded platinum lock, and I know better than to waste time trying the key I just found in it, so I go straight for the brute force approach. Using my shoulder as a battering ram is painful but effective.

My wanderings bring me to a sturdy door with iron bars across it. Something rumbles behind the door and, drawing back the iron bars (I'm guessing that they're some kind of non-secured gate, but the text is vague here), I go through. And the rumbling turns out to have been a Dragon snoring. The Dragon's a light sleeper, and slams the door behind me with his tail. He then tells me that he's already eaten, so if I can do better than him in a non-lethal fight, he'll let me leave. If he prevails, there's still room for dessert.

I don't do so well here, which is understandable, as the Dragon does have a higher Dexterity (this fight is avoidable, so the adventure's not completely unfair for having such an opponent). Once I've lost the requisite number of rounds, the Dragon asks if I'll just let him eat me, or if I'm prepared to help him work up an appetite. I fight on, of course, but the lethal fight goes little better than the sporting one, and I wind up eaten. There are worse ways to go.

Friday, 20 September 2013

The Children of My Civilization Would Be Insulted

Seven years ago I was in full-time employment, the gamebook revival was going strong, and I had yet to realise how much I dislike about Jon Sutherland's approach to writing gamebooks. Consequently, when a search for 'gamebook' on eBay turned up a couple of the F.E.A.R. Adventures by 'Jak Shadow' (a pseudonym for Mr. Sutherland and Gary Chalk, for 'no sensible' reason), I placed a bid and wound up getting the books for less than the postage on the lot cost.

The premise is explained in the introduction that gets rehashed in every single book in the series. My character is a child who attended a holiday adventure camp that turned out to be a secret recruiting ground for F.E.A.R. (Fighting Evil, Always Ready), a covert organisation formed to protect the Earth from 'evil alien genius' and time traveller Triton. They're recruiting children because Triton defeated all the adult agents sent against him (it is a popular misapprehension that when writing for children there's no need for the plot to make sense), and as I excelled in multiple fields at the camp, I've been singled out as a suitable candidate for a F.E.A.R. agent. I promptly demonstrate my unsuitability for such a post by shouting about how I'm going to be a secret agent, but my apparent inability to grasp one of the fundamentals of keeping a secret (not yelling about it at the earliest opportunity) does not deter F.E.A.R. operative Colonel Strong from offering me a post.

If the available publication dates are correct, The F.E.A.R. Agency was the fourth book in the series to come out, but as it's all about the final test before I commence field operations, it makes sense to play that one first. I'm to enter virtual reality and face a simulated Triton in four different situations (all based on the settings of the other books in the series). If I'm able to defeat him every time, I'm considered ready for a proper mission. If I fail any of them... Well, I get to retake the test as many times as it takes to get it right, because this series tries not to discourage its readers by making defeat an option. So I very nearly opted not to blog about the F.E.A.R. Adventures because of category 5 on my list of gamebook types unsuitable for covering here. Still, if I treat the 'go back to section 1 and try again' sections as the failures that they are, the books qualify for coverage here. And there's a certain twisted appropriateness to my applying a rather spurious rationalisation to get them through the selection process.

Overcoming my nervousness at the fact that part of the VR set-up looks like a dentist's chair, I start the test, and am presented with a choice of locations: the Tower of London, a sailing ship, the clock tower of the Palace of Westminster (more commonly known as Big Ben, though officially renamed the Elizabeth Tower last year) and a spaceship. I'll start with the Tower of London.

I get shown the disguise Triton is using in this place and time: an overcoat, scarf, top hat, pince-nez glasses and fake sideburns, none of which hide the green skin that should make him more than slightly conspicuous. And while the hat could conceal his pointed ears, the illustration shows that the brim has slits in it to allow the tips of his ears to peek out.

A voice-over explains that Triton is about to escape from the Tower and make his getaway through Traitors' Gate, and I must prevent him from doing so. I decide not to go to his cell, but wait near the gate, and catch sight of a patrolling guard. The book offers the option of warning him of Triton's imminent escape, but approaching the authorities hardly ever works in gamebooks, and adults refuse to believe warnings from children in far too many kids' books, so speaking to the guard is liable to be futile at best. Not approaching the guard leads to my character becoming impatient and heading for Triton's cell instead. Clearly Mr. Sutherland is still not too keen on letting the readers make the decisions.

Going to the cell would be easier if I knew where it was, but finding it doesn't prove that difficult, as I spot one of Triton's henchmen heading there, and follow him. He bends the bars to let Triton out and, given that even my adult self wouldn't fare too well against the sort of thug who can bend metal bars with his bare hands, I choose not to attack him. Once Triton is out, the two of them head along the gravel path to the river. I follow them, but stay off the path, as it's not easy to be stealthy on gravel.

They get into a rowing boat, and I see that Traitors' Gate has been opened while I was authorially sidetracked. Jumping into the boat looks like a stupid idea, whereas trying to reclose the gate could possibly work, so I look for the controls, and find a big cog with a handle. Cranking the gate shut takes me less time than rowing to it takes Triton and his minion, and the tantrum Triton throws upon having his exit barred causes the musclebound minion to wind up in the water. Triton then starts flailing at me with an oar, and I duck, hoping that slapstick shenanigans will lead to the alien also going overboard. That's precisely what happens, and he loses both his hat and his recently regained liberty.

One mission down, three to go, and the way the section is worded implies that I have no choice about which one I try next. So off I go to the sailing ship-based test, in which Triton's 'disguise' consists of an earring, a spotted bandana and a hat with a feather in. He's planning on stealing the gold from a ship in order to finance further misdeeds.

I find myself on deck and, not seeing any crew about, go to see if someone's steering it. When I reach the deck (not that I ever left it, but authors who think children will tolerate any old nonsense tend not to be too concerned about sloppy writing, either) I see the Captain, who somehow senses me behind her, spins round, draws a sword and asks who I am and what I'm doing here. I can tell her the truth or claim to have been lost at sea and swum to her ship, and since I'm too dry for 'I just swum here' to be a remotely convincing claim, I'm stuck with the not much more plausible-sounding 'I've been sent here to help prevent a pirate from stealing your cargo'. She's convinced and, when a look-out sights Triton's ship, turns to me for advice. I have vague memories of recommending that she fight when I played the book back in '06, and it didn't go well, so this time I suggest fleeing and hoping that all that gold won't slow the ship down.

Well, that was not unsuccessful. But then the ship runs into a tropical storm, and again it's down to a 21st-century child with roughly zero experience of sailing to explain to a ship's Captain how to handle the situation. I advise making for dry land, so the crew steer the ship out of the eye of the storm and into calmer waters (someone doesn't know that the eye is the calmest part of a storm), where land is rapidly sighted, and we soon reach harbour. There are so many flaws in the plan of unloading the gold to hide it in the nearby village that even the author might realise it's a bad idea, so I opt for trying to encourage the locals to help us against the pirates.

Nope, the village is a nonsensically long way from the harbour, and before we get half way there, Triton's ship pulls up and grabs the cargo. Silly me, thinking we'd be more vulnerable if we were dragging heavy chests of treasure along the road when the pirates caught up to us. But a quick look at the section I didn't turn to reveals that if we'd taken the gold with us, we'd actually have reached the village before Triton's ship arrived. Well, my already low opinion of the author's writing has dropped another notch or two. By now I have only slightly more respect for him than he shows for his readers in this book.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Go Where Ya Haveta Go

I put my attempt at Slaves of the Abyss, Fighting Fantasy gamebook 32, on hold when an ambiguity in the rules made it unclear whether or not I'd survived a fight. Attempts at contacting one of its authors have proved unsuccessful, but a little checking through paths not taken in the book provides evidence that can be taken as supporting the outcome in which my character is still alive. It is actually possible to avoid the fight in which I received a fatigue-based penalty to Skill (though I'd have had to do things differently earlier on in the book), and the combat-free route says nothing about having my faculties impaired by lack of sleep. So either the penalty was only supposed to apply to that one fight, or my tiredness permanently damages me, but only if I attack the two guards. The latter seems unlikely enough that I'm going to say that I was back to normal Skill for the fight with which the previous blog entry on Slaves ended, and thus narrowly survived.

Things now get a bit muddled mechanics-wise. I've been choosing which way to go at each junction based on textual clues alluded to in a hint I found earlier. But at each turning I've been instructed to note down a number, and the text also states that if I've already noted down the number associated with one of the paths leading on, I have to take the other one. The clue indicates that the right turning is the correct one to take here. The number-noting rules insist that I go left. While I'm prepared to accept that the rule takes precedence over the clue, I have to wonder why they contradict each other at all: changing just one word could have had the clue and the rule both point in the same direction, and it wouldn't make any difference for any readers who'd missed the clue and were using some other criteria to determine which way they turned.

Anyway, I take the turning I must, and soon reach a fast-flowing stream. On the far bank is a Troll, dragging a sapling behind him, and I keep quiet so as not to be noticed. Before long the path takes me back into the forest, and had I had the preceding few encounters in a different order, I would proceed to get lost and go round and round in circles until I ran out of Time (while I haven't previously mentioned it, there is a grid of boxes inside the front cover of the book, and every so often the book says to cross one of them off. Run out of boxes, and Kallamehr falls to the enemy). As it is, I only wander around for a short while before reaching a clearing that contains a hut on legs, with no obvious door. I walk under it and see an open trapdoor in the middle of the hut's underside, and as I'm wondering how to get up there, the hut squats down, so I position myself below the opening.

The interior of the hut is surprisingly uncluttered: it contains only a woman, who shows me a vision of people trapped in cells in a void. She tells me that I must rescue them, and asks if I know her name. Guessing (and remembering from previous attempts at the book) that she's the Sage whom Enthymesis sought, I say the name that Mema mentioned to me, and am congratulated on my intelligence (though the Sage also gets in a dig about my appearance). She tells me that more trials lie ahead, but I may be Bythos' nemesis. Noticing the pomander I still carry, she tells me that if I eat its contents when I reach the Abyss, I will be protected from the Master's breath (but if I try doing so in this world, I'll just get sick).

A snake wraps itself around my neck, and is introduced to me as Caduceus. The Sage then shows me a vision of the hornets I saw above the advancing army, and explains that their sting banishes people's spirits to the Abyss, leaving their bodies as slaves to their Master. However, they can be killed by burning the leaves of the Jheera tree, and there just happens to be such a tree growing in the forest. Or rather, there was one, but the vision conjured to show me it reveals only a hole in the ground from which a tree has been uprooted. I mention the sapling I saw the Troll carrying, and the Sage says she'll control the paths through the forest to lead me to the Troll, and then back to my horse. She warns me not to come back here afterwards.

I find the Troll attempting to stick the sapling into a hole in the ground, but it won't fit. I point out that it'd be easier if he pulled off the leaves, and he takes my advice, so I collect the leaves as he strips them from the tree. He is then able to get the sapling into the hole, and pry out a spiny animal that was hiding down there. Cramming the creature into his mouth whole, he rapidly comes to regret not having removed the spines first and, blaming me for the consequences of his own stupidity, attacks. I cure him of all the woes attendant upon life and get back to my horse. I leave the forest and, just in case I was thinking of disregarding her final warning, the Sage then transforms it into a vast lake.

I have work to do, so I set off in search of the enemy army, catching sight of it as it engulfs another town. After manufacturing a crude torch from a tree branch, the leaves and a strip torn from my clothing, I move closer, leaving the torch unlit as I don't know how long it will last. This proves to be my undoing, as my horse throws me when the hornets start heading in our direction, and the fall incapacitates me for long enough that the hornets catch up to me before I can light the torch. Next thing I know, I'm one of the void-imprisoned mob I saw in that first vision.

Another failure, then, but I've learned a couple of things that will be useful to know the next time I play the adventure.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Try Reading Books Instead of Burning Them

Last month I played through the first half of Lone Wolf book 5, Shadow on the Sand, which is divided into two mini-adventures for no good reason. Indeed, the first section of the second part of Shadow has my character emerging from the end-of-part-one musings prompted by the visiting Darklord Haakon's revelations, and becoming aware of having been spotted by two guards, who promptly loose a hound.

The dog goes for me, and I dodge the worst of its attack, causing it to overshoot and plummet to its death in the chamber below. The Mongoose edit introduces a grammatical error, and also makes the guards more passive: in the original text they're already charging to attack when Haakon notices me and yells, 'Kill him!' but the reissue has them do nothing until they get the command. I kill them, and shelter behind one of the bodies when the Darklord fires a bolt of energy at me. The corpse is vaporised by the blast, so I hurry away before he can fire again.

The Zakhan sounds the alarm and, presumably, finds some way of persuading Haakon not to kill him or take back the Orb of Death despite its now being clear that he lied about having me as a prisoner. Pity. But that's a regret for another day, as I have an escape to make right now. One of the possible escape routes leads upstairs, but going up increases the likelihood of my having to leap from a great height at some point, so I duck through an archway instead. This causes me to bump into a palace guard, knocking him over. He pulls out an axe and gashes me in the leg, and I retaliate with a finger-breaking blow before hobbling away and descending steps to the palace garden.

There's a locked door at the bottom of the stairs, and none of the keys I carry are made of the right metal to be the one needed here. The layout of this part of the palace is unclear: I must be outdoors, because guards on a bridge connecting the palace to a tower are aiming their crossbows at me, and I have the option of trying to climb over the door. Given that the only alternative is going back upstairs and onto the bridge and hoping that the guards don't manage to fire at me before I reach them, I think climbing is the less unwise choice. Though I might have reached a different conclusion if Mr. Dever had bothered to mention the long poisoned spikes protruding from the crossbar when presenting the choice. I should at least have been able to spot the spikes, even if the poison wasn't noticeable from ground level.

Things get a bit messy here. A random number (with modifier) determines the outcome of my attempt at climbing, and the original text carelessly gives options for getting 'below 4' and '5-9', with nothing to cover an adjusted total of exactly 4. The Mongoose edit eliminates this problem, but needlessly complicates matters by making a 0 on the random number generator equivalent to 10, rather than 0, and adjusting the ranges to '5 or lower' and '6 or higher'. Which means that a couple of numbers can mean the better outcome in one edition, but the worse in the other. Not a problem if you're only using one book, of course. My adjusted total is 4, so in this instance I'll go with the text that allows for the possibility of getting it.

Dodging the crossbow bolts, I make it into the garden, which offers two ways on. Tracking tells me that one leads to the arboretum, which I've already been through once, so I pick the other one, even though it's a flight of stairs heading back up. Some of Haakon's retinue approach, but I conceal myself in the shadow of a statue of the former Zakhan (no Camouflage check called for), thankful that he was not a skinny man. Authorial fiat compels me to keep ascending until I reach the roof and make my way to a bell-tower.

The tower turns out to be next to the Itikar pens, Itikars being a species of giant bird domesticated and used for transportation by the Vassagonians. Someone rides in on one even as I watch, and before long he has gone off to attend to his business, leaving his Itikar with a lone guard. Getting to the guard unnoticed could be tricky, but Mind Over Matter is still good for providing distractions (in this instance, telekinetically detaching the man's money pouch from his belt and causing his cash to spill out onto the floor). The Mongoose text gets rid of a potential continuity error here, incidentally cutting out one section transition, which isn't an issue in the current circumstances, but would mean slightly less Healing if I were at less than full Endurance right now.

A quick search of the body gets me the money he'd managed to retrieve and, probably more usefully, a Brass Whistle. With search parties approaching the pens, I hurry into the occupied pen. The Itikar initially reacts hostilely, but Animal Kinship comes in handy again (and, slightly surprisingly, using the Whistle is not an option here, so maybe it's for raising the alarm rather than commanding the Itikars). Soon I'm on the Itikar and flying it out of the pen, doing some damage to the approaching warriors in the process.

Before long I have airborne pursuers: not more Itikars, but Kraan, the same kind of creature as was used in the attack on the Kai monastery back at the start of the series. By now it's quite late in the day, and I think I might be able to lose the Kraan and their riders if I can keep ahead of them until it gets dark. The book suggests two places to which I could head, and advises consulting the map at the front before I choose. One of the places named is a lot closer than the other, and since I'm supposed to be drawing out the pursuit, I go for the more distant one.

A Kraan catches up, and its rider, an undead being known as a Vordak, attempts to psychically attack me, but my Mindshield keeps me from taking damage. It then leaps onto my Itikar and injures it, and while a couple of swipes with the Sommerswerd get rid of my unwanted passenger before it can kill my mount, the unfortunate creature isn't going to be airworthy for much longer.

Conveniently, a ship emerges from a nearby cloud (the ship is flying rather than the cloud being particularly low). On the ship is Banedon, the magician I befriended back in book 1. The Mongoose text here is grammatically sloppier than the original, but the directions at the end of the section remove a potentially problematic ambiguity (allowing for the possibility that I might somehow have lost the Pendant that Banedon gave me when we first met, so I only need to have owned the thing rather than have it on me to recognise my friend), so the edit isn't all bad. Before I can react to this new arrival, the Itikar dies, and I find myself plummeting towards the ground below in another of those tiresome unavoidable 1 in 10 chances of death. Today the random number generator produces a satisfactorily low number, and the sky-ship catches me in a net.

By the time the Dwarvish crew have hauled me aboard, some of the Kraan have caught up, and a couple of Haakon's troops have boarded. One is fighting a Dwarf, and winning, so I intervene. Not quickly enough to prevent him from throwing the Dwarf overboard, but he's dead before he can finish turning to face me. Despite the addition of a couple of unnecessary descriptors ('strangling' doesn't really need prefacing with 'brutally' to make it clear that what the warrior's doing isn't that friendly), the Mongoose text is an improvement on the original. In a cheesy Hollywood blockbuster-esque moment, it then transpires that the Dwarf caught his foot in the netting that saved me.

I then see that another boarder has speared Banedon in the arm, pinning him to the deck (and section number recognition tells me that this would have happened even if I hadn't taken the time to save the Dwarf). The fight against that one doesn't go as well, but there's no way I can lose (or even take long enough for some external factor to intervene), and the only reason to bother playing out the fight at all is to see how much Endurance I lose from the scratches and grazes my outmatched opponent inflicts on me while I'm eviscerating him. Another Kraan-rider fires a crossbow at me, and in the Mongoose text I am surely DOOMED because there is NO WAY that I could POSSIBLY protect myself from the bolt in time!!! but then Banedon throws up a magical shield to save me at the last second. The same events occur in the original version, but it doesn't milk the peril. Mind you, it would introduce me to Banedon all over again if I'd misplaced the Pendant, so again the edit does have some merit. Whereas the changes to the next section are just verbose.

I remove the spear from Banedon's arm and bind up his wound, and he makes a continuity error, talking as if we fought Kraan and Drakkar warriors the last time we met, when that encounter was actually with Goblin-equivalent Giaks. He takes the helm, and the section ends in a 'cheat' cliffhanger worthy of a Republic movie serial, as there's a loud explosion - which in the next section is revealed to be one of the Dwarves shooting a Kraan with a pistol. The noise scares off the other Kraan, and the fighting is over.

Except that one of the boarders sprawled across the deck is only feigning death, and suddenly leaps to his feet and flings an axe at me. Sixth Sense or Hunting enables me to anticipate the attack and dodge, and a gunshot to the chest sends the man overboard. Banedon then remembers that he has a big hole in one arm, and I use Healing to stabilise him until his own medics can tend to the wound (which would happen immediately if I didn't have Healing, so it's rather a redundant Discipline check - okay, so it means that any player who chose Healing gets to pass through an extra section, which technically means recovering another point of Endurance, but since that section has me focusing my powers of Healing on Banedon, it seems odd that I'd get to use them on myself at the same time).

While Banedon's receiving first aid, I tell him of my recent experiences, and he points out that we must prevent Haakon from destroying the Book of the Magnakai (the thought had occurred to me). He also explains that the Tomb containing the Book is exceptionally well-hidden, but that's not so bad, as he happens to know Tipasa, the one man who visited it and survived (and vowed not to go back there under any circumstances whatsoever, but the mini-adventure in which he resolved not to return hadn't been written when Joe Dever wrote this, so if anyone should be criticised here, it's the author of The Tomb of the Majhan).

Banedon pilots the ship in the right direction, while the Dwarves bring food that would restore Endurance if I hadn't just returned to full health through Healing (and that's with no Endurance gain for the 'Heal Banedon' section). They also offer ale, though the book warns me to be careful, as Bor-brew is potent stuff. I decide to try it anyway, and the book has me down half the tankard in one go, because obviously nobody who touches strong drink has ever hear of moderation. And as I determine the outcome of my quaffing, I'm at a disadvantage for not having got a better starting Endurance. Again the Mongoose text fixes the omission of a number from the list of possible outcomes, but this time (thanks to the 'better equipped to handle his drink on account of having played books 1-4' factor) I get the preferable outcome regardless of which book I'm using.

The Dwarves are impressed when I don't start picking fights, making professions of undying friendship, getting maudlin about all the travelling companions who didn't survive to the end of my adventures, or wearing a pointy hat and singing a song about Giaks. How impressed varies depending on which version of the book I'm reading, and how you parse Dwarvish use of the word 'giant'. They get chatty, and it's implied that they entered Banedon's employ after he used his magic to cheat at cards against their former Captain. Still, they enjoy adventuring, so they don't seem to mind the questionable ethics of their change of employment.

Eventually I go for a rest, fatigued enough that the Dwarvish proportions of the bunk don't prevent me from falling asleep almost instantaneously. When I wake, the sky-ship is waiting in the shadow of a mountain so that Kraan-riding enemy scouts won't spot us. As I've missed this book's potentially lethal souvenir (all right, there isn't one in every Lone Wolf adventure, but they do crop up reasonably frequently), we go undetected, and are able to resume our journey, eventually mooring not far from Ikaresh, Tipasa's home town. After disguising ourselves to look like locals, Banedon and I continue our journey on foot, not wanting to attract too much attention. The inhabitants seem to have become more jaded in the Mongoose edit: originally the arrival above the city of a flying ship would have been sure to get tongues wagging, but in the rewrite it only might do so.

On the way to Ikaresh we spot a cave, which I decide to check out. It is inhabited by a man who suffers from local leprosy-analogue vaxelus, and I give him the left-over Oede to cure him. In return, he tells us that the widow Soushilla will be able to direct us to Tipasa. He also gives me a Jewelled Mace, which, this being a gamebook, is liable to prove a more effective weapon in some circumstance than such an obviously ornamental artefact would ever be in the real world.

At Ikaresh we soon experience the local hospitality - and I'm not using the term sarcastically. A stranger invites us into his home, Sixth Sense confirms that he's not planning to kill or rob us, and after we've sampled the local wine, which tastes good and has medicinal effects, he tells us roughly where Tipasa lives, and asks us to remind him about a loan he'd like repaid. At least he doesn't try to get us to pay it.

Moving on, we reach a town square with a fancy signpost: a bronze eagle holding arrows in its beak. One of the paths leading from here goes to the district where we've been told Tipasa lives, but a depressing number of LW fans would refuse to go that way, even if they'd been given the directions I have, because it means turning right rather than left.

We pass a barracks with a dozing guard outside. In a nice bit of incidental detail, children are attempting to use his spear for a risky game of hoop-la. Close by is a tavern, which looks like a good place to get more precise directions. In a bit of dodgy racial stereotyping, Banedon warns me that these people are all light-fingered, so I should keep an eye on my money. We enter the tavern to find a wedding celebration in full swing, with the tearful, black-clad proprietress looking on. Could this be the widow named by the man in the cave? I ask her about Tipasa, and she gives an evasive answer, so Banedon gives her a coin. She refers to herself as Soushilla, and as I didn't mention that name, she probably is the person I'm after, but she wants more money, and a passing pickpocket has grabbed the rest of Banedon's money (oh, the hilarity!), so I have to cough up the rest in order to get Tipasa's address from her. She says he lives in the alley behind the market stables, so when I reach the market, we head for the stables, where Banedon bribes a small boy with an illusory ring to find out Tipasa's address.

Let me get this straight.. If I hadn't handed over that rare and valuable healing herb to a man who'd been exiled because of the disease he'd contracted, I wouldn't have got the lead that led to my friend's losing all his money and my handing over a not insignificant amount of my own cash in order to receive information that, if I act on it, leads to my getting told the same thing again free of charge on the authorial assumption that I didn't know it. So I'd have been better off hoarding the Oede and leaving the man in the cave to suffer and die alone (unless that mace turns out to be important). Or, having paid Soushilla's extortionate rates, I suppose I should have ignored the place she mentioned and headed for the previously unmentioned Carpet-weavers' Quarter. It's a good thing I'm getting back to Fighting Fantasy book 32 for my next blog post, because following this illogic with the insanity that is FF 33 would probably cause my head to explode.

Tipasa's wife greets Banedon and tells him that he was abducted by Haakon's men ten days ago. They didn't get his notes, though, and she retrieves them from their hiding place in the hope that they will help us find and rescue him. Banedon realises that he'll need to consult his star charts to make sense of the notes, and once it's light enough, we return to the sky-ship. Even back there, he can't figure them out, but when I take a look, I immediately realise that the coordinates of the Tomb are in a code that can be cracked by answering trivia questions based on the map at the front of the book. As with the combination lock puzzle I never encountered in the first half, the Mongoose text has a whacking great 'this is the correct section for the puzzle solution' interjection, just in case the reader is too thick to work out from context that it is indeed the right answer. Which would also make it much easier for anyone who couldn't be bothered to solve the puzzle (I don't say 'couldn't solve' because it'd only stump someone who couldn't read and count well enough to have got this far through the adventure) to cheat by flicking through the book until they saw the rather distinctive parenthesis interposed between section number and text.

The 'concealed' section number has nothing to do with the details of where the tomb is, and one of the locations from which a bearing is taken doesn't get named on the map, just to render the whole thing that bit more meaningless. But I'm past that bit now and, if all goes according to plan, will never have to bother with it again, so I'll quit grouching and get back to the plot.

Again we moor the ship somewhere it won't be noticed and cover the last stretch of the journey on foot. The Tomb is still being excavated, indicating that the Book of the Magnakai has yet to be found, and the presence of Haakon's Imperial Zlanbeast indicates that he's come here. While waiting for it to get dark enough that I can sneak across to the Tomb unnoticed, we make our plans: I get the book, Banedon tries not to bungle rescuing Tipasa as badly as he's messed up codebreaking, heeding his own advice and fighting since I rejoined him. Also, I need to eat again, and in the Mongoose text I'm unable to use Hunting to capture some edible critter.

Eventually night falls, and I sneak over to the Tomb. The main entrance is guarded by a Drakkar (the Mongoose text specifies that the man guarding the entrance is standing at the entrance - you know, from now on I'll just add an asterisk whenever the rewrite adds patronisingly redundant details), but Mind Over Matter is still good for causing distractions, so I'm soon inside the Tomb*.

Rather than faff about trying to detect and neutralise the traps with which the Tomb is filled, Haakon has simply sent Giak slaves ahead of him to trigger them, so I have little difficulty getting as far as the excavations have reached. A massive stone door blocks the way, but the Blue Stone Triangle I picked up in a completely different part of the world in book 3 opens it for reasons that make no sense at all. There are footprints in the dust that covers the floor of the chamber beyond, and I see a stone throne facing away from me. The throne rotates to reveal Haakon sitting in it, and I'm surprised to find him not stroking a white cat. He tells me I'm doomed* and fires a bolt of energy at me*. I deflect it with the Sommerswerd, but the blast knocks the weapon out of my hand.

The next blast destroys the pillar behind which I was hiding, but I leapt away in the nick of time, and only took minor damage from the shockwave. According to the Mongoose text, I can't retrieve the Sommerswerd until the book is over, but I know from past experience that another weapon I own can also harm the Darklord. With me exposed and vulnerable, Haakon now switches to a psychic attack, from which Mindshield protects me, then summons up a creature that's vulnerable to that Jewelled Mace and just stands and watches while I pulp it. Oh, and he has some kind of connection to it, so my killing it wounds him, making him drop the glowing stone he used to attack me back before he lost all his competence. Sixth Sense makes me aware that I could use its evil powers against him to banish him to another dimension, but doesn't warn me that he'll arbitrarily get to instakill me if I do anything else at all.

Well, that was a rubbish ending.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Seven Things I Wouldn't Much Like to Do

Suffering a spot of gamebook burnout right now, so I'm taking a short break from the playthroughs and hoping to be back in the right frame of mind for more by next week.

In the mean time, here's a quick rundown of types of gamebook I won't be attempting on this blog. Being on this list isn't necessarily an indication that I think the series mentioned are bad per se, but for one reason or another, I don't think they'd make for good posts here.

1) The Plotless
That title is a bit misleading, as the principal example in this category - Dave Morris and Jamie Thomson's Fabled Lands - does have plots in it. But they're all optional: the series is essentially about exploring the world in which it's set, and choosing what (if anything) to get involved with. Because of this, there aren't really any 'win' endings. You can resolve some of the plot threads, but then you have to move on to something else, and just keep travelling and getting embroiled in situations until you die.
Another complication is that each Fabled Lands book concentrates on one region of the world in which the series is set. This makes covering the series book-by-book tricky: a playthrough of my first go at the first book would essentially go:

  1. Meet old man.
  2. Get directed to standing stones.
  3. Pass through magical portal into another book.
  4. Er, that's it.
Book 3 is especially problematic in this regard, as it's about sea travel, and can become little more than bridging material between other books.

2) The Two-Player Eliminator
I've played some two-player gamebooks here, but the likes of Joe Dever's Combat Heroes and Mark Smith and Jamie Thomson's Duel Master aren't really suitable for the blog, as the whole point of them is to defeat the person playing the companion volume. Which requires a second person to play the other book (okay, some of the books do have solo play options as well, but they have problems of their own).
Beyond that, the two-player side of Combat Heroes essentially boils down to 'look for opponent, find or get found by opponent, fight, repeat until someone wins'. Well, that's it for the first pair of books. The second pair is more 'try to point your gun at your opponent without allowing him to point his gun at you, shoot or get shot at (or both simultaneously), repeat until someone wins or flees'.
There is more going on apart from the central conflict in Duel Master, but that has its own drawbacks. I may be in the thick of some side quest when my opponent enters the region, at which point whatever I was doing just comes to a stop so the player characters can hit each other or throw things at each other. Or interaction with the side quest ends equally abruptly because the other player character just died and I won by default. 

3) The Picture Book
Some gamebooks use illustrations more than they do words. Combat Heroes falls into this category, too, and 2000 A.D. spin-off Dice Man is a more plot-heavy example. With the illustrations being such a major part of the experience (and at least some of the adventures hinging on spotting the right detail in one of the pictures), writing about them here would be missing out on too much to make it worth doing. It's a variant on the 'dancing about architecture' thing.

4) The Puzzle Book
My primary example of this, the Be An Interplanetary Spy series, has considerable overlap with the previous category. But it gets an entry of its own because I need seven categories to go with the quotation I've used for the title of this post, and because they (and the few more text-based gamebooks that also fit in here) have their own specific problem: a 'true path' narrower even than anything created by Ian Livingstone at his most linear. The reader follows the plot, and is confronted with a puzzle - sometimes, but not always, arising reasonably naturally from the situation. Get it right, and move on. Get it wrong, and it's game over. Or occasionally the puzzle makes no difference, and you move on to the next plot beat just as you would have if you'd got it right. But there's hardly ever any free choice, and what little there is largely boils down to the order in which you go through unavoidable sequences of events. As for the puzzle-based decisions, interjections along the lines of 'I work out that pattern C is the one that doesn't match the rest' are liable to lose their appeal rapidly.

5) The Unlosable
There are gamebooks out there which it is literally impossible to fail. There are no bad endings. When I was a teenager, the bad endings were one of the best parts of gamebooks. Nowadays I'm not so obsessed with the variety of ways my character can come to a sticky end, but without the possibility of going wrong, gamebooks do lose something. Chief offender here is the Decide Your Destiny series of Doctor Who gamebooks. Even if the characters from the TV series have to survive out of some sense of canon (which wasn't the case in earlier series of Doctor Who-based gamebooks), there's no reason why the viewpoint character should automatically have plot immunity. Unless you're trying to please the sort of person who objects to the very existence of what the DVD sleeves call 'mild peril' in media targeted at children, which is not a worthy goal for writers of gamebooks, Doctor Who books, or children's books.
To be fair, some of the authors manage to create reasonably thrilling stories even with the 'no unhappy endings' limitation. But by no means all. Some of the times I read books in this series, I wound up getting an 'adventure' even less exciting than the outline I wrote back in category 1.

6) Schroedinger's Gamebooks
Some of the Decide Your Destiny gamebooks mentioned above also fall into this category, as do a lot of the Choose Your Own Adventure books. These are the books in which nothing is fixed - reality itself changes arbitrarily in acausal response to your decisions. Open the door, and the creepy house is actually being used as a hideout by forgers using a plan straight out of Scooby-Doo to scare off the inquisitive. Listen at it, and you're in the home of a mad scientist whose experiments are to blame for the apparent haunting. Creep past, and the house really is haunted. Basically, every time you come back to the book, forget whatever you learned on previous attempts, as there's no guarantee that any of it will apply this time round.
That's not to say that inconsistency is always a bad thing in gamebooks. Steve Jackson used a form of it in Appointment With F.E.A.R. so that the 'solution' for a character with one power was not the same as for a hero with a different power. And he's not the only gamebook writer to have done something worthwhile with malleable reality. But a lot of the writers who use it overuse it, and wind up producing an incoherent jumble of fragmentary plots.

7) The Overly Dice-Dependent
Some of the books I've played, or will one day play, for this blog at least come close to this category, but there's a line that they don't quite cross. The sort of gamebook I mean here has just that bit too much determined by the fall of the dice. In some of the Make Your Own Adventure with Doctor Who books (released as part of the Find Your Fate series in America), practically every other section requires you to roll the right number to avoid failure. 
Similarly, it hardly matters how good a detective you are when playing certain Sherlock Holmes Solo Mysteries: unless you roll high enough to spot the relevant clues, you get nothing on which to base any deductions. About the only thing I can remember about Milt Creighton's The Royal Flush is that I kept hitting the 'you didn't find out enough to be able to even learn what went on, let alone try to figure out who did it or why' wall.

So there it is. Not an exhaustive list of what I shall not be playing here, and there may be the occasional gamebook that, despite fitting into one of the above categories, somehow manages to merit coverage here anyway. But I've had the idea for this entry rattling around in my head for some time, and writing it up means that the blog still gets an update even if I am taking a short break from actually playing gamebooks.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Heavy as Hard Luck

Monster HORRORSHOW was a complete RPG system devised by J.H. Brennan. It includes the proud claim that, "There are fewer rules in the HORRORSHOW than any other major role play game system I know!", which makes me wonder if Mr. Brennan had come to regret giving Sagas of the Demonspawn such a horrendously convoluted ruleset.

I attempted to run the adventure contained within the rulebook for my school's RPG group, but didn't get very far. Maybe that's because I never actually made it through The Labyrinth of Squat. That was a short but tough solo adventure at the start of the book, and the book indicated that in order to become a Werewizard (Monster HORRORSHOW's term for the GM), one must first survive the solo adventure. Despite numerous attempts, I never got further than the climactic fight. And, it being over two decades since I last even tried, I don't know if I'll even make it that far this time. Still, I can remember a lot of what happens in it, so my near-inevitable failure might well be down to the dice rather than poor decision-making.

The Labyrinth of Squat has even fewer rules than Monster HORRORSHOW. The starting total of Life Points is fixed, and I start with no equipment beyond the clothes I'm wearing. I find myself in a damp and dimly-lit subterranean room, with doors to all four major points of the compass. In the centre of the room is a large and unpleasant granite statue of a giant humanoid toad killing a warrior. There are two plaques on the plinth, one naming the statue 'Squat Triumphant', the other being what the text suggests might be 'some tribute to the repulsive Squat in a foreign tongue', though any amateur cryptographer should have no difficulty translating it into a handy hint. I have the option of examining the statue more closely, but as I recall, doing so is unhelpful and harmful.

Of course, black granite is significantly heavier than polystyrene.

While the information provided by the encoded plaque is worth acting on, there's something else I should do first: what I did at the start of almost every attempt I've ever made at the adventure (the exception(s) coming before I found what I'm about to seek). So I open the south door, and... that's not the door I thought it was. The south door is locked, and the keyhole bears a message stating that it can only be unlocked with a brass key manufactured by the Acme Brass Key Manufacturing Company of Pittsburg, Illinois. Not yet having such a key on me, I shall have to return to this door later. But it's not the one I want.

Maybe what I'm looking for is to the west, then. No, that door opens onto a corridor containing a sinister robed figure. I'll have to go that way at (at least) one point, but not yet. How about east, then? Yes, that's more like it. A clockwork mechanism slightly impales me with a spear. Which is not a good thing to have happen, but that does show that I'm on the right track, and the book specifies that there's only the one spear, so if I should ever come this way again, I can ignore the trap. Which did negligible damage anyway.

Past the now empty spear-chucking device is a corridor leading to another door, on which is a sign reading, 'This door is also trapped'. Fearlessly I advance to the second door and fling it open. The spear-thrower behind it activates, but whoever put up that sign neglected to load the second device, so it just twangs ineffectually at me. Beyond that door is a large chamber containing a drinking fountain. I drink, finding the water to have an unusual taste and a potent effect, restoring my Life Points to maximum. It doesn't work if taken away from here, but the effect is repeatable, and now that the one functional trap on the way here has been sprung, there's nothing to hinder me from popping back to get healed any time I get injured.

Returning to the chamber where I started, I now try the north door, which leads to a corridor ending in another door. Behind that door is another corridor ending in a third door, but a large spider's web spans it at the half-way mark, and if I want to get to the end of this corridor, I'll have to fight the large spider. Which is not tarantula-style large, but the size of a German Shepherd. And by 'German Shepherd', Mr. Brennan means a man who looks after a flock of sheep somewhere like Baden-Wurttemberg, rather than the breed of dog. The fight does not go very well: though I win, I lose a lot of Life in the process, and this corridor is not like the booby-trapped door - if I go away and come back later, a second oversized arachnid will have spun a fresh web in the same place.

The fountain isn't the only way to get healed, but the alternative method is less reliable, and causes further loss of life when it fails to work. I'll give it a couple of tries (it'd take at least three failures to kill me), and if I'm not in better shape by then, I'll have to do things the hard way. No, healing leaves me worse off, so I trek back to the fountain, restore myself to full health, and then confront the replacement spider, which only inflicts a quarter of the damage that its predecessor did before I kill it.

The northernmost door leads to a portrait gallery, most of the pictures showing Squat indulging in sinister pursuits left undescribed to deter readers from copying them, though there is also a remarkably realistic illustration of a double-headed zombie reading a spell book. The paintings will merit closer examination later, but for now I'm more interested in following up on the clue from the statue, so I take the west exit.

This brings me to another chamber with four exits, and a heap of straw in one corner. Judging by the graphically-described stench of the straw, something sleeps in it. Each door has a sign on it. Starting with the one through which I entered, and going anticlockwise around the room, they say, 'Open this door and you're history', 'Keep out or be gutted', 'Positively No Admittance on Pain of Death and Nasty Stuff Like That' (with an accompanying illustration of a skull and crossbones, plus an axe embedded in the skull), and 'Welcome, Gentle Traveller'.

Searching stinking mounds is often a worthwhile pursuit in J.H. Brennan books, so I take a chance on it here. There are no items of value in the straw, but what an incredible smell I've discovered - so disgusting that whoever I next fight will spend every second round retching too hard to be able to hit me. I then open the west door ('Positively No Admittance etc.'), and the guard on the other side asks me, "Can't you read?" (possibly going on to observe that I smell like feet wrapped in leathery burnt bacon) before taking a swing at me with his sword. He hits me once, I retaliate with such force that, but for his armour, the fight would be over, and while he's gagging, I follow up with the coup de grace.

He was guarding an armoury, and I help myself to a breastplate and a sword that glows and makes a humming noise, but is only like a light sabre, because George Lucas' lawyers were probably already very active in 1987. There are no other exits, so I return to the room with the straw and, since the text doesn't forbid me from doing so, check the mound again. Still no loot, but I'm back to smelling worse than that guy you really wish wasn't in the same lift as you at the convention.

Behind the north door ('Keep out' and so on) I encounter what appears to be the end result of an alchemical experiment gone badly wrong (or it could be a punk rocker). Either way, I have another fight on my hands if I wish to investigate further, and between getting first strike and that nifty sword, I win too quickly for the smell to make any difference. The room being guarded by the green-clawed thing I just slew contains only a brass key, an engraved label proclaiming it the craftsmanship of the Acme Brass Key Manufacturing Company of Pittsburg, Arkansas. Despite the state-related inconsistency, this is the key that will unlock that door I found earlier. And the book gives every indication that Mr. Brennan had no idea either of the Pittsburgs named actually existed - but then, he didn't have access to Wikipedia in the 1980s.

Like the armoury, this room has only the one door. Nevertheless, a choice of options is provided. I can either go back south to the room with the straw, or stay here until I starve and rot. Call me predictable or unadventurous if you will, but I head south.

Now, do I return to the gallery or refresh my memory as to what horrors lie beyond the south door ('Welcome, Gentle Traveller')? I think it's got to be the untried door, just to see what the joke is. Unexpectedly, there is nothing nasty immediately beyond the door. Just another corridor, so I can head back north into the room with the straw, south in search of a deferred punchline, or east or west if I feel like walking into a wall.

South takes me to a room with additional exits to east and west. From the section number I deduce that going east will take me through the corridor that had the sinister robed figure in it (he's gone now) and back to the chamber with the statue. West is an unknown, so I check it out, entering a room that rotates just enough to block off the way I came in. In the centre of the room is a coffin-sized device with three numbered buttons set into it. An accompanying notice provides mathematical formulae for establishing which of the buttons will, if pressed, destroy the galaxy, which will send me on a mystery trip, and which will allow me to go back east or further west. Some mathematicians may disagree with Mr. Brennan's interpretation of the term 'whole number', but it's clear enough which button is which. Though curious about the mystery trip, I pick the one that will allow me to continue my comparatively methodical exploration of this not particularly labyrinthine labyrinth.

Pressing the button opens up the way back east and a flight of steps descending to the west. I head down them into a dark chamber where I am confronted by a stone figure with huge yellow eyes. Leaping to the attack, I find that I've just assaulted a statue of Beethoven that's wearing a pair of sunglasses that might once have belonged to Elton John (though if the book had been published a year or two later, I'd have had to reference Roddy Piper and possibly play out a combat that takes something like 10 minutes to resolve and makes no sense whatsoever). Helping myself to the sunglasses (which enable me to see in the dark), I return to the room, which rotates again, so I take a chance on the 'mystery trip' button.

It's a randomised teleporter, and my memory for section numbers tells me that it could send me to the gallery or the room with the mound of straw. Instead of which, it takes me back to the room with the statue, so I make a detour east, for a refreshing drink that makes good the damage I took from spider and guard.

I'm still missing two essential items, but I know where they are. Out of curiosity, I go west from the chamber with the statue, to see what the robed figure is actually like. And it's an Animated Skeleton with delusions of Grim Reaperhood, which attacks me with a pocket-sized scythe and does almost as much damage as that first spider before I deanimate it. Another quick drink, and I try the spider route to the gallery again: the spiders aren't as good fighters as the Skeletons (though they do have an 'inflict Instant Death on a double 6' ability that might yet give me cause to regret picking the theoretically safer fight).

I win but take a lot of damage, so I go back for another drink, then kill the next spider without getting hurt at all. Back at the gallery, I take a closer look at the painting of the zombie, and realise that this is actually an art installation: a portrait-sized hole in the wall leads to a room that contains a real undead two-headed zombie, lit in such a way as to appear indistinguishable from a painting except under close scrutiny. Scrutiny close enough that the zombie is able to reach out of the frame and yank the art critic into its little room. Say what you like about the Tate Modern, but at least the exhibits don't usually attack the punters.

The fight is over quickly, but not before the zombie infects me with its Putrid Touch, which will cause me to haemorrhage away 5 Life Points every time I turn to a new section until dead or cured. Nevertheless, I grab the spoils of battle before leaving the zombie's room: a hidden compartment contains a pouch of money that's of no use whatsoever within the adventure, and the book the zombie was reading contains a spell of protection from fireballs.

There are two routes from here to the healing fountain. One goes through fewer sections than the other, but will include another spider fight, and that could do more damage than the longer journey. I think I'm healthy enough to survive the slower-but-safer path, and put my theory to the test. And I'm right.

Now I have to go back to the gallery again. But if I'd tried getting the other thing I need from there after getting the zombie's book, I'd almost certainly have wound up rotting away before I got to the fountain. So, if all goes well, one more spider fight. Mind you, it'd also be just one more if all went incredibly badly. But the spider dies without injuring me at all, so I get back to the gallery again.

This time I concentrate on the portraits of Squat. A particularly nasty one shows him wearing a dragon-shaped amulet. A woefully inaccurate equation has been scrawled on the frame (it boils down to '252=156'). This is actually a puzzle (not even that tricky once you know what to do), but the book also gives the option of thinking about it, and doing so leads to the same section as actually solving the puzzle for real. Bizarrely, back when I first reached this part of the adventure, I missed the 'trick' of the puzzle and turned to the 'think about it' section. Though that section says nothing about how the puzzle is solved, the very act of turning to it somehow inspired me to realise what I'd been missing (and consequently to be able to solve the variant on that puzzle that had baffled me for years in the third of Mr. Brennan's Grail Quest books).

Making sense of the unbalanced equation enables me to realise that I can reach into the painting (and this one is a proper painting) and grab the amulet for myself. More problematically, the illustration of Squat comes out of the picture at the same time, and attacks me. It gets lousy rolls, though, and I deconstruct it quite thoroughly.

I head back to the chamber where this started, and unlock the south door. Heading down yet another corridor, I reach another room, which appears to have another exit set into the south wall. It's a bit hard to make out, though, what with that full-grown dragon blocking the view.

Hang on, a dragon? With how many Life Points? Good thing it lets past anybody wearing a dragon-shaped amulet. And, thanks to the sunglasses, when I step through that other door, I see that I've reached Squat's throne room. Aware that I've not been taken in by the illusion that would be getting me killed right now if I'd fallen for it, he lobs a fireball my way. Good thing I've got something to keep me unsinged.

Magic having failed Squat twice, he resorts to brute force instead, and the toughest fight in the adventure ensues. For the first time ever, I don't lose it. Hey, Ed, Nick, Tim and Nick, we can get back to the HORRORSHOW campaign now. (Yes, two of the players back at school did have the same first name. And another had the same first name as I. Reality must have rolled at least 30 when using the Absolutely Anything Table to generate the group.)

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Sleep Is For Tortoises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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