Friday, 29 November 2013

Ye May as Well Ride Backward as Forward

I remember coming across copies of Ghost Knights of Camelot, the fourth Wizards, Warriors and You book, by David Anthony Kraft, on a stand near the top of the escalator in Boots. The same stand on which Deathtrap DungeonThe Crown of Kings and Seas of Blood were displayed when they came out. But the others were FF books, and I was collecting them, whereas I wasn't so fussed about WW&Y at that time. I flicked through a copy and read an Instant Death involving venomous spiders, but was not enticed to buy GKoC.

Getting back into gamebooks in 2001 led to my becoming involved in book-trading with other fans. In addition to my own want list, I mentally carried around the want lists of a couple of contacts in America, who could sometimes provide me with hard-to-get titles in return for the sort of books that I could find comparatively easily in second-hand shops. So when I popped into the Red Cross charity shop on Carr Lane and spotted a copy of Ghost Knights on one shelf, I bought it because I knew someone who wanted it and could furnish me with a book I wanted in exchange. But before sending it off, I did play it one or ten times, just to make sure there were no pages missing.

The adventure starts on a peaceful summer afternoon. The Warrior is having sparring practice with a junior knight, while the Wizard is having a nap. This snooze is disturbed by a prophetic dream about invading ghosts, and the Wizard has scarcely had time to warn King Henry about it before a mortally wounded scout arrives at the castle to report an encounter with the Ghost Knights of Camelot. They have announced their intent to conquer every kingdom in Europe, starting with King Henry's.

The King's initial response is not the smartest thing ever said by a monarch. In amazement he exclaims that Arthur's knights have been dead for over a hundred years. This might help anyone who wants to try and place these adventures into a more specific historical context - the fact that he didn't say 'hundreds of years' could be taken as meaning more than one century but less than two - but also suggests that he hasn't twigged that Ghost Knights are going to be the ghosts of knights who are already dead. The clue is in the title.

It will take time to mobilise the king's armies, so he sends the Wizard and the Warrior to try and deal with the Ghost Knights by themselves. It is at this point that I must choose which character I will play, and I'll stick with the 'Warrior in odd-numbered books, Wizard in even' policy I've been using, so that makes me the Wizard.

As we ride north, in the direction from which the dying scout came, farmers in their fields watch with dread, knowing that if we've been sent on a mission, there must be big trouble afoot. I reflect on the sort of power that would be required to summon up the spectres of Camelot's knights, and wonder what chance I have against the magic-user who controls the army of ghosts.

My musings are interrupted by the appearance on the horizon of a shimmering cloud that, as it draws closer becomes recognisable as a band of riders with glowing eyes and translucent skin. Their leader identifies himself as Sir Lancelot, and the Warrior impetuously rides to attack him. The Warrior's horse stumbles, throwing its rider, and leaving him vulnerable to Lancelot's attack.

I must cast a spell to help my companion. I'm not sure that Momentary Darkness will inconvenience ghosts, and as I recall, it was a backfiring Vision spell that led to that spider-based death, so I'll take a chance on Invisibility. It works, turning the Warrior invisible, which disconcerts Lancelot just long enough for the Warrior to be able to dodge his attack. Unhorsing Lancelot, the Warrior leaps into the spectral saddle and rides to attack the Ghost Knights. Two of them fall before Galahad has the bright idea of throwing a spear at the seemingly empty space on the horse's back. The Warrior is injured, and Mordred (should he even be with this bunch?) leaps in, intent on finishing the Warrior off.

At that point the spell wears off, and the look on the Warrior's face is fearsome enough to deter Mordred from attacking. Still, he's one wounded man against many ghosts, and can't last much longer. Then inspiration strikes: what I need to do is seek Merlin's advice, with the help of the Move Time Back spell. Okay, so the spell generally only takes me back up to an hour, but if I try really hard, I should be able to extend the effect by over a hundred years, right?

Well, that depends. I have previously mentioned the WW&Y books' use of wacky determinants, but this is the first playthrough in which I've encountered one. The success or failure of my spellcasting depends on what time it is. And I never expected the fact that I'm singing in a choir at a carol concert next month to be relevant to this blog, but it is. You see, I had to put this entry on hold mid-way through the previous paragraph in order to attend a rehearsal. Which means that, rather than reaching the 'If you are reading this book during the hours of...' bit shortly after six, I didn't get there until gone seven. So the spell works and I avoid some kind of bad ending.

Anyway, after a moment of panic when I think I might have gone back to before the dawn of time, I hear Merlin asking who's come to disturb him, and hurriedly explain the situation. He immediately concludes that Morgan le Fay is to blame for the Ghost Knights, and explains how she betrayed him. I may be able to defeat her, with his advice, but matters are complicated by what looks like a mild case of Schroedinger's Gamebook. Merlin's advice will vary depending on whether I think the Ghost Knights are genuinely the restless spirits of the Knights of the Round Table or just demon spirits disguised as the heroes of old. And by the look of it, the accuracy of whichever theory I favour will be randomly determined.

Would Arthur's Knights really serve Morgan, even after death? I'm going to conclude that the Ghost Knights are impostors, which means I have to flip a coin to find out if I'm right. Heads says I'm right, by the look of it. Returning to the Wizard's present day, I find myself and the Warrior still surrounded by the Ghost Knights, who advance on us until I cast Sorcerer's Sleep. This renders them (and the Warrior) unconscious for an unspecified length of time - long enough, at least, for me to dress the Warrior's wounds and get every sleeping knight, friend and foe alike, onto his own steed and start leading them to the only place where demons can be defeated - at least in this gamebook world - namely Stonehenge. But will it be long enough for me to get them there?

To find out, I must look out of the window. Well, I don't have to, as it was dark when I set off for choir practice, and I haven't taken so long writing this that the sun could have come up in the mean time. But that's what success hinges on at this point: is it day or is it night?

I think I've got the bad outcome, but it's not yet certain, as it takes the book more than one page to reveal how things turn out. As a means of heightening the suspense, it is not ineffective. Stonehenge is in sight, but the demon knights are beginning to stir and mutter. Can I get us all there before they properly come round? I turn to the relevant page.

Success. But not yet victory. I've got the knights to where they can be killed. They're starting to revert to their demonic form and break free from their bonds, so I have to cast Merlin's Fire in less time than it takes one of them to reach and horrifically mutilate me. Interestingly, the Book of Spells at the back of each WW&Y adventure I own (I've heard that some of the later books, which were only published in America, had a different spell set) indicates that despite the spell's name, Merlin himself might never have used it. Though he must at least be familiar with it, given that he advised me to cast it here.

No more digressing. It all comes down to another flip of a coin. Heads again. The book says to keep tossing the coin until I get tails, but then the 'turn to' directions are based on whether it came down tails first time or not, so does it really matter? If things go all Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead on me, it could take hours to get tails. Okay, so in the event it only takes one more flip, but still...

I was right about it not mattering whether I got tails on the second flip or not until the seventy-ninth one. Regardless, it means that the Warrior wasn't standing in quite the right place when I cast the spell, which, predictably, results in the demons not being burned out of existence but absorbing all my magical powers and becoming invulnerable to the Warrior's weapons. That's 'predictably' as in 'WHAT THE...?' It's possible that we also become unkillable, as the book describes our fate as being 'trapped forever' rather than 'killed', which would suggest that we spend all eternity locked in a futile and unending battle with the demons. Which is good news for all the kingdoms the 'Ghost Knights' will never get to conquer because they're too busy dismembering the Warrior and me for the umpteenth time, but still not the happiest of endings for us.

Absurd things happen in these books. Sometimes it's part of their charm. And sometimes it's just stupid and tiresome. I'd put the ending I just reached in the latter category.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Gone, But Not Forgotten

This is my 200th post on this blog (not the 200th playthrough (that'll be in a few weeks), nor the 200th gamebook featured (which should come a few weeks after that)), and I felt like doing something a little different to mark the occasion, such as it is.

What with having disposed of a significant proportion of my gamebook collection in the 1990s, and having done a fair bit of gamebook trading to help rebuild the collection once I got back into the genre, there are a number of gamebooks that I used to own, but no longer have. Possibly as many as two dozen, depending on how you define terms. I'm not particularly bothered about replacing most of them, but I would like to say a little bit about a few of those gamebooks that have some significance to me anyway.

1) Tracker Books # 6, Skyjacked
I got this at the annual second-hand book sale held at Christ Church on Vale Road. The viewpoint character is taken hostage while en route to a holiday in France, probably escapes and gets recaptured several times, and most likely winds up wandering around a sewer until reaching one of three endings - total failure, partial victory (the criminals go to prison but keep the ransom money), or complete success.
Significant because it was my first gamebook, and inspired me to write one of my own (Smugglers, which was highly derivative and pretty shambolic, but did get finished, which is more than happened with most of the ones I started to write in later years).

2) Choose Your Own Adventure # 15, House of Danger
I bought it from the Book Exchange on Goods Station Road, primarily because it featured the same principal characters as book 27, The Horror of High Ridge, which I'd acquired by collecting tokens from cereal packets. It involves investigating a house in which strange things are happening.
This one is significant because it sowed the seeds of my dissatisfaction with what I call 'Schroedinger's gamebooks'. The explanation for what's going on in the house varies depending on what decisions you make. I remember my friend Simon having a couple of goes at it, and getting very confused second time round, because the apes that were just holograms the first time he played were suddenly real and dangerous. When the facts are changeable like that, acting on information learned during previous attempts can be harmful to your character's health, and I don't like that.

3) Endless Quest # 22, The Endless Catacombs
I was given this along with 3 of the Wizards, Warriors and You books and one other EQ book. The eponymous catacombs are actually very limited in scope, and the 'collect items to defeat the evil wizard' plot is not enlivened by the way that the correct choice in pretty much every decision is blatantly obvious. Seriously, it's almost like:
The undead monstrosity is about to attack. What will you do?
Encourage your brother to search for the hero inside himself, claim the magic sword that is his birthright, and save you and the rest of the party from certain death (turn to 35).
Geoff Hurst in the 1966 World Cup final (turn to 74).
It's significant because of the striking image of the crystal coffin on the front cover, which stayed with me long after I'd parted company with the book, and eventually inspired a significant element of the mini-adventure I wrote for issue 9 of Fighting Fantazine.

4) Find Your Fate # 3, Indiana Jones and the Giants of the Silver Tower
I got this one in a charity shop, possibly the Cancer Research one near the War Memorial, along with the following book in the series. The viewpoint character is an unidentified juvenile associate of Doctor Jones, accompanying him on a quest to find the Giants referred to in the title.
It sticks in the memory because exhaustive reading of the book failed to turn up a conventional 'win' ending. There are paths on which it's possible to survive, and partial successes, but there doesn't seem to be one in which finding the Giants' tower provides the fortune and glory for which Jones is hoping. In keeping with the tine of the movies, then, but a stark contrast with the other Indiana Jones-themed gamebooks I'd read, in which it is possible to get whichever mystical McGuffin the plot revolves around. Indeed, that aspect make IJatGotST unlike most other gamebooks full stop.

5) Which Way Books # 2, Vampires, Spies and Alien Beings
In May 1989 I visited Rickmansworth to try and find the café mentioned in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I found a café - don't know if it was the café, or even if there really was a specific café that Douglas Adams had in mind. But I also found this book in a charity shop. It involves a visit to a film studio where they've managed to reduce costs by using a machine that turns fiction into reality. Naturally, the device goes wrong, and the viewpoint character becomes caught up in the events of one of the films being made - either a James Bond-type blockbuster, a horror story, or a sci-fi epic. Or possibly all three, if you manage to find a path that allows for crossing between studios and genres.
The preposterous concept is a big part of what makes this book memorable. Beyond that, the 'spy' plot thread had some interesting ideas in it, and I borrowed a few concepts when creating my first semi-original scenario for the James Bond 007 Rôle-Playing Game campaign I was running for the school RPG group. Despite its flaws (such as the fact that it is possible to endlessly loop around, and some moralising almost as clunky as in The Endless Catacombs), the book was fun enough that I wouldn't mind owning it again. But I'm not sufficiently fussed about it to pay as much as postage would cost for a second-hand copy via Amazon, so it's not likely to wind up gracing my shelves any time soon.

I'm sure I can't be the only fan who doesn't still own every single gamebook they ever had. Anyone else out there with significant memories of gamebooks they no longer own?

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The Moments That You and Your Own Worst Enemy Share

Thanks to my diary, I can state that I came across copies of Keith Martin's third Fighting Fantasy gamebook, Master of Chaos, in Hammicks' bookshop on the 21st of March 1990. I looked through a copy, decided it was worth buying when I had the money, and returned two days later to make the purchase. My first attempt was made without dice, and spread out over the course of a few days because I had a lot going on at that time. Later on I did try it by the rules, but gave up after repeatedly dying in a certain fight (which could have been avoided, or at least delayed until I was better equipped for it, but I hadn't yet realised that the book wasn't as straightforwardly linear as a lot of FF).

The Background section has certain similarities with that of Mr. Martin's first FF book, Stealer of Souls. I am a warrior, chosen by a group of wizards to go on a dangerous but important mission, which will take me across the sea and to the lair of an evil wizard. This one has stolen a powerful magical artefact (a Staff of Rulership, to be precise) rather than kidnapping another wizard, but that's a relatively trivial difference. More significant variations are present in the revelations about the villain, MoC making good use of the 'show not tell' approach. Before hearing anything about him, I see the dying Great Wizard who fell victim to one of his summonations. Two scryers were almost killed just probing for his name. And that name indicates him to be a once-notorious wizard who once formed an alliance with Dark Elves, was rather graphically killed and fed to the vultures three centuries ago, but has obviously got over that little setback. Rather more an effective an introduction than Stealer's 'everyone's heard of him and is scared of him (even though he's never been mentioned in the previous couple of dozen books set in this world)'.

There is one further difference, the most significant from a gameplay point of view. Not only would Shanzikuul, the wizard in question, be able to detect any wizards sent after him, but he's also going to be on the alert for any hero-types coming across from the continent where he just struck, so I need a convincing cover story. 'Helpfully', my employers have arranged for me to be press-ganged into service on the disreputable Captain Shagrot's ship, which is heading for where I need to go. Without his knowledge, so once the ship makes dock, I will have to escape and find some way of equipping myself before I can start seeking the ruined city of Kabesh where Shanzikuul has his base. But the wizards are confident that I'm up to the challenge. And their faith might not be misplaced, as I have:
Skill 11
Stamina 15
Luck 9
I did allocate dice when rolling up the character, but only to give myself a less mediocre Luck. Oh, and I get to pick three special Skills from a list of six, so I go for Blindsight, Animal Wisdom and Tracking.

The adventure picks up several days into the voyage. Life as a galley-slave is not good for the health, so I suffer a Stamina penalty straight off, and the first choice in the adventure is an ethical dilemma. The Second Mate, a particularly charmless Orc, is taking out his temper on the slave next to me, inflicting a pretty brutal beating. I'd prefer to intervene, but my Initial Stamina is so low that the damage I'd take could weaken me enough that I'd die during the 'regain strength and gather resources' phase of the adventure. With regret, I bite my lip and row on.

Eventually the Orc leaves. A conversation takes place on deck, but I didn't pick Acute Hearing, so I don't know what it involves. Another week passes, and my Stamina deteriorates further. The next time the Orc is in a foul mood, he picks on me. Fighting back would get me killed, so I endure it. By now I'm down to less than half my Initial Stamina.

The First Mate selects a couple of slaves for deck-cleaning duty, and I'm one of the ones picked. To discourage any thoughts of escape, I'm fitted with a ball and chain before going up. While I'm scrubbing the deck, a Kraken attacks the ship. The Captain defends himself from a tentacle with a cutlass and, hoping to keep the Kraken from messing up what I've just cleaned, I join the fight, using the ball on my chain as an improvised weapon, as the slaves aren't allowed sharp implements. Using such a crude weapon does bring a Skill penalty, but I'm a good enough fighter to win anyway.

Incidentally, this fight is a good illustration of how MoC handles the 'start in dire circumstances' set-up much better than some gamebooks. If I had taken enough damage to be in imminent danger of death, another character would have jumped in to finish the tentacle off before I could actually get killed. It's a tough book, but not unfairly harsh. Unlike the Tunnels & Trolls adventure Captif d'Yvoire, in which my character died before I even got to make a decision, MoC manages to give the reader a fair chance while still leaving the character in a pretty desperate situation.

But on this occasion I won. Grudgingly thanking me for helping fight off the monster, the Captain lets me have some grog, which restores a little of the Stamina I've lost. I'm also upgraded to 'trusty' slave, which means that I get treated slightly better, and don't take any further damage from my travelling conditions.

A few days later, the ship approaches its destination. A fellow trusty asks if I want in on his escape plan, and I join him. The crew drink a lot in celebration of having almost completed the voyage, and once they're all at least tipsy, we sneak over to one of the lifeboats. My Blindsight enables me to spot a crewman dozing in the boat, and we deepen his sleep (and intensify the headache he'll have when he comes round) before tipping him out, lowering the boat, and rowing ashore.

In the boat we find a little money and food, which we share. We also make a bit of money by selling the boat in Ashkyos, the city to which the ship was heading. I don't yet have enough for a sword, armour and other necessities, but it's a start. While in Ashkyos, I need to keep track of an additional stat: Notoriety. This goes up whenever I do something liable to attract attention, and if it gets too high, I'll have to leave town before the authorities show me how they deal with foreign troublemakers.

First I head for the warehouse district, where I see a merchant and two labourers pursuing a youth who has apparently robbed the merchant. I intervene, Tracking coming in handy when the thief ducks into an alley, and while I fail to apprehend the lad, I am able to retrieve the stolen goods. As a reward, the merchant gives me some money and offers to hire me - at a decent rate - to help unload a cargo of his that's due in tomorrow. I accept, and in addition to earning that bit more, I also food and a place to spend the night, all of which helps with returning to a decent state of health.

The following day, a shifty-looking character named Vesper asks if I'm interested in acting as a look-out while he does a 'little job' at a warehouse. Cultivating associates of a more dubious nature can be helpful, so I agree. Blindsight enables me to spot patrolling guards, so the 'job' goes well, and I receive a quantity of saffron as payment. Vesper also provides some local gossip: a Dark Elf has been seen making enquiries about travel to Rahasta, which is on the way to the ruins of Kabesh, and there's a Necromancer looking for hired labour in the Old Quarter.

I head to the market, where my ill-gotten gains fetch a good price, and find a man mistreating a mongoose because it won't do tricks for him. Animal Wisdom tells me that the mongoose is smarter than it seems, and I buy him from the man, who also gives me a whistle to call the mongoose if I ever risk letting him off the leash. Once the vendor has gone, the mongoose tells me he can talk (the text notes that this is rather stating the obvious) and introduces himself as Jesper. Perhaps not the best choice of name for the character, given that it's only one letter away from that of the burglar I befriended earlier - both names crop up in 'if you have met him, turn to...'-style directions at different times, and a reader who's only encountered one of the two might mistake the other's name for a misspelling of the one they know, and turn to the wrong section.

Jesper leads me around the market, and encourages me to buy a couple of odd-looking eggs from one stall. I take his advice, and we wind up sitting down close by for a long conversation. The crowds find this interesting enough that I get some Notoriety, but by the end of our chat, Jesper has managed to hatch the eggs with the warmth of his body, and onlookers start bidding for the hatchlings, so I make a decent profit on the purchase. He then suggests that we go to Entertainer's Square, where he could put on a show to earn me some more money, after which he'd like to leave me to my own devices while he pays a call on a certain female mongoose he knows.

By the time we reach the Square, he's having second thoughts about the 'performing animal' schtick, and by now I'm not so desperate for funds as to need him to demean himself in this manner, so I tell him he can go off and meet his lady friend. He agrees to rejoin me when I'm ready to leave town, and as he's leaving the Square, he bites a merchant, who chases after him. The merchant dropped some coins when he got bitten, so I pick them up, doubtless intending to return them if he should ask.

One of the main attractions in the Square is a gladiatorial ring, where people may fight a Half-Ogre for money. Competitors may borrow a sword and armour, so I decide it's worth a try. The fight is to the death, and my victory adds to my Notoriety (having the corrupt ruler of the city as a spectator certainly contributes to that), but I win additional funds, as well as the gratitude of an innkeeper whose son was killed by the Half-Ogre. He gives me a free meal, which restores much of the Stamina I lost in the fight.

It's about time I got kitted out. I gain further Notoriety for buying a sword and armour, but the items worth having in the other parts of Ashkyos must be fought for, and I'd rather be infamous than unarmed and unprotected in those fights. I also buy a backpack and a lantern, and get a free waterskin. At the travel shop I get a ticket for the riverboat to Rahasta, and I get some extra Provisions at a food shop.

Next I head for the docks - where I used to make the mistake of going first back in 1990. I see a brown-robed figure conducting some kind of financial transaction with a hunchbacked Dwarf, but choose not to stick my nose in. Continuing to explore, I bump into Captain Shagrot, whose anger at my having escaped overrides any residual gratitude for helping against the Kraken. Talking of which, the text here says the Captain has a wooden leg, but the illustration of the Kraken's attack shows a two-legged Captain swinging a scimitar. The same scimitar he's now unsheathing to use on me, in fact.

While not sufficiently fond of their Captain to help him in this fight, his crew fear him enough to ensure that I have no escape option. And a demented parakeet leaves its owner and gets in my face. Killing it allows the Captain to get in a couple of blows against me, but the Skill penalty for having the bird distracting me could be more harmful in the long run. As the dice fall, it would have made no difference, but I've had enough combats where I had the advantage go badly that I didn't want to take the risk.

The fight increases my Notoriety (though Shagrot's crew all cheer when I gut him), and turns out not to have been worth getting into after all: the scimitar is magical, and confers a Skill bonus - but only to characters with a Skill of 10 or less. Nice way of making things a bit fairer for characters with inferior stats, but losing half my Stamina for an unusable bonus is a bit of a pain.

Proceeding to the wretched hive of scum and villainy that is the Old Quarter, I see plenty of sights. Most significantly, at least in the short term, a runaway mule which is heading straight for me. Animal Wisdom enables me to calm it - just - and the owner gives me some money.

Three local establishments appear popular: the up-market Koyala's Bar, Kanstrin's Guursh Bar, and Stavian's Gambling Hall. Vesper mentioned Stavian's, but before going there I check out Kanstrin's. This turns out to be even swankier than Koyala's, despite the name (imagine if the Ritz were renamed Sammy's Meths Joint), and has a formidable-looking bouncer. He lets me in, for a price, and after feeling out of place for a while, I spot some people who are obviously up to no good dashing out of the kitchen.

I follow the ruffians, one of whom fires a blowpipe at me (but misses). Pursuing him up some stairs, I avoid a rather nasty trap thanks to Blindsight, and then fight him. He calls out to warn an associate before I kill him, and when I get through the door he was guarding, I see the other man holding a dagger to the throat of an unconscious Dark Elf. He tells me to stand back and let him escape, or he'll kill the Elf. While Dark Elves are generally bad guys, taking actions liable to lead to the murder of a defenceless one is a step too far for me, so I step away from the door. Using the Elf as a shield, the man backs through the exit - and trips over the body of his partner-in-crime, at which point he abandons his hostage and flees.

The Elf has regained consciousness (or was just shamming, in which case I imagine I'd have made him very angry if I'd risked his life by attacking the man), and expresses surprise at my having rescued him. He doesn't leap to the attack, so I reciprocate, and he shows himself to be an Elf of honour. When it becomes necessary, he will do his best to kill me, but he hopes to be able to discharge his debt of gratitude to me before then. As a small token of thanks he gives ma a Potion of Healing, and he also encourages me to take a bracelet belonging to one of his erstwhile captors - perhaps because it has magical properties, perhaps just so the book can keep track of our having reached a temporary accord. Before I go, he mentions the Necromancer of whom Vesper spoke, identifying him as an enemy of both of us, and advising me to accept his offer of employment so I can get close enough to have a stab at getting him out of the way before he can make serious trouble for us.

Acting on his suggestion, I go to Stavian's and, after buying some food to replenish lost Stamina, join the Gnomes I know to be the Necromancer's minions. We play dice for a bit, I win a little money, and then the Gnomes invite me to earn a little money by helping them procure 'research' materials for their master at the cemetery. I take the job, but only go along with the plan so far: once they ask me to remove a fresh corpse from a coffin, I quit and head out of the crypt. The Necromancer is waiting at the entrance and, furious to see me empty-handed, attacks. I'm a better fighter than he, and after dropping below half Stamina, he resorts to using magic to escape. The Gnomes flee, the militia approach, and I have to make myself scarce, along the way acquiring enough Notoriety that I shall have to depart the city in the morning.

In the mean time, I find a place to spend the night, but am troubled by bad dreams, and wake to find an iron ring on one of my fingers. It won't come off, either.

Once it's light, I blow the whistle, and Jesper rejoins me, excited about going on a trip. I can call in at a food store on the way to the river, and stock up on Provisions, but my Notoriety denies me the opportunity for further shopping. The rules governing essential meals aren't that great: not eating when instructed to results in the loss of 2 Stamina, but eating when not instructed to adds 4, so there's an obvious loophole that unscrupulous players could exploit.

The boat is pretty shabby - as is its Captain - but it takes us away from Ashkyos. On the second day of the trip up-river, the weather is miserable, so I stay in my cabin and doze. Some noise disturbs me, and I wake to see Jesper decapitating a River Python that slithered into the cabin. That'll do, mongoose.

On the third and final day of the voyage, the boat is attacked by pirates. I manage to dodge the bolt of flaming pitch that a ballista hurls at us: a fellow passenger is not so fortunate. As the pirate vessel gets within boarding range, I take advantage of a brief opportunity to go for their Captain. He doesn't put up much of a fight, and his men surrender when he dies. The riverboat's crew ply me with enough food to restore what Stamina I did lose in the fight, and they also give me a share of the pirates' plunder.

By the end of the day we reach Rahasta. Being close to the Chaos Wastes, the city has a large mutant population, which makes me wary. As it's late and I need rest, I go to the Scapegoat inn, where the hunchbacked landlord and his nine-tailed cat make me feel less than welcome. The Dark Elf is also present, and confirms that he's after the Staff as well. He advises me to leave Rahasta before the locals turn on me, but I know from one past failure that not getting some rest before I move on would prove fatal. Luckily for me, a former owner of Jesper's once saved one of the locals from a Troll, so the mongoose is able to arrange for me to stay at their home for the night.

In the morning I replenish my food supplies before setting off towards Kabesh. The journey takes two days, and the heat of the sun takes its toll on me, but I'm still in reasonably good shape when I reach an oasis where nomads are encamped. They offer me hospitality, and 'invite' me to meet their leader, Baalberith, Servant of the Lord of the Suns and the Ways. He explains that they're on a quest to recover a Sacred Sphere, and offers a reward if I should find it for them.

Baalberith recognises Jesper as an acquaintance of his father's, and they start chatting. It soon becomes apparent that my four-legged friend will be joining the nomads, but as some compensation for the loss of my companion, I get fresh supplies of food.

After a night's rest, I start exploring the ruins. First I investigate the ruined Senate House, finding a large Mutant Scorpion in the cellar. It's not as formidable a foe as it looks, and I soon dispose of it. The cellar also contains the Sphere the nomads seek, which is a pleasant surprise - while I remember which locations I must visit to be able to win the book, I'd forgotten what's where apart from those essentials. I take the Sphere to the nomads, who give me a rope and either a Magic Sword (which may not be any better for me than Shagrot's scimitar, though the wording of the description isn't as clear as it might be) or a Potion of Stamina. I choose the latter, as that will definitely work.

The next day I search the ruined houses to the west, where I find someone else who's come here to look for something. This one, Kanestin, is after a magical tome, and offers to give me information on the Chaos Pits where Shanzikuul has his lair if I find it for him. From past attempts at the book I know that Kanestin is a minor-league villain, so I don't take the deal.

I'm not sure there's much to be gained by visiting the other non-essential locations, so I now head for the Mausoleum. Opening its heavy doors costs me a little Stamina, and two animated Skeletons attack me. No sooner have I destroyed them than their owner appears. It's the Necromancer I fought in Ashkyos, who now offers me an alliance. I offer to smash his face in. Down here he's a more formidable opponent, but by getting in the first blow I keep him from launching a magical attack on me. A few rounds into the fight he rallies, bringing my Stamina perilously low, and then someone invisible joins the fight - on my side. Keith Martin's rules for battles with multiple fighters on one side are slightly different from those found in other FF books, and have one glaring omission: they state that only the combatant with the highest Attack Strength strikes a blow, but don't indicate what happens if the two on the same side get the same higher-than-their-opponent's Attack Strength. Which happens twice during the fight.

Regardless, the Necromancer loses, and my unseen helper reveals himself to be the Dark Elf, whose name I somehow now know to be Naas. He gives me a healing draught, tells me that he's discharged his debt, and says that it wouldn't be honourable for him to kill me just after I helped him defeat a great enemy (er, who helped whom?), so he won't kill me until next time. He then leaves by means of a variant on the so-called Indian rope trick, and I drink the potion from the nomads to restore the rest of the Stamina I'd lost in the fight.

The dead Necromancer has an Iron Key on him, as well as the book that Kanestin wants. I take it with me, not wanting to risk Kanestin getting his hands on it, and proceed to the warehouses. There, my lack of Acute Hearing enables a mutant to ambush me, and I'm half-throttled before I manage to kill it. Tracking enables me to find the trapdoor by which the mutant entered, and I descend stone steps into the Chaos Pits.

A passage leads to a circular ledge overlooking a cavern which contains a pit filled with elemental Chaos, a writhing mass straight out of the worst imaginings of Lovecraft and Giger, surrounded by further mutants. Steps lead down into it, but there are also two doors leading from the ledge I'm on. and a portcullis at the far side, so I don't descend.

The door to the right leads to a weapon store, guarded by a crazed-looking man with an unusual helmet. The design on the helmet is distracting enough to give the wearer's opponents a Skill penalty while fighting him, so I try to pull it from his head. I succeed, and sanity returns to the man, who thanks me before expiring. His last words lead me to a Magic Sword with a bonus I can actually use, so I ditch the scimitar in favour of the Moon Sword.

I then try the door opposite, which is ajar. Peering through, I see a Mutant ladling sludge from a vat into a bucket and taking it down to the pit to feed it to the monstrosity in there. During one previous attempt at this book I was reckless enough to try eating some of the sludge myself, as a result of which I know it to be unexpectedly nutritious (though not particularly tasty - the book semi-anachronistically compares the flavour to 'boiled cardboard laced with pine-needle pulp'). I even fill a waterskin with more of the stuff for later on.

Proceeding to the portcullis, I find it locked, but the Necromancer's key opens it. It also triggers a trap, releasing several venomous snakes, but I fight them off with ease. Some quite evocative prose adds a nightmarish tinge to my walk along a corridor, and then I run into Shanzikuul's best mutant, a hybrid that combines aspects of bear, crocodile and less easily identifiable species. It also has acidic slobber, and the picture in the book matches the description a lot better than the one on the cover. I also prefer internal artist David Gallagher's interpretation of the 'taloned, eight-fingered claws' to that of cover illustrator Les Edwards.

Anyway, I fight the Zoalinth, which doesn't fare very well against me, and strike the coup de grace while it's hawking phlegm in an attempt at a potentially lethal gob in my face. It's guarding a door, which leads to Shanzikuul's Great Hall. To my surprise, it contains a well-laden banqueting table, assorted works of art, and a fountain. At the far end is Shanzikuul, looking very young for somebody who was vulture droppings 300 years ago. He dismisses his two tiger-woman servants, reprimands me for being late, and invites me to have dinner with him while he outlines a proposal to me.

I warily accept the invitation, and am offered the post of his right-hand man. It's not remotely tempting, but now that I'm sitting next to Shanzikuul, I have a chance to grab the magic ring he's wearing, which could significantly improve my chances in the coming fight. I succeed in pulling it from his finger, and he backs away. If I take the time to put the ring on, I'll get the Skill bonus it would have given him, but he'll have a chance to use magic. Or I could just attack straight off - the fight would be tougher, but I wouldn't have to contend with my foe's conjurations. I risk the second plan, and the fight goes much better for me than expected. Soon Shanzikuul is on his last legs, and as he attempts to cast a spell, I strike a killing blow. I don't watch the unpleasantness that occurs after his death.

Somehow sensing that something is about to happen, I retrieve the Staff. No sooner have I done so than Naas turns up and attempts to make good on his promise to kill me and take the Staff. Despite having a lower Skill than Shanzikuul, he wins and draws a lot more rounds than the wizard. Nevertheless, my superior Skill prevails in the end. I hear hordes of mutants approaching and, spotting a gleam of magic in Shanzikuul's amulet, take a chance on its being able to teleport me away. I get lucky, and find myself back with the wizards who chose me for the mission. A celebration ensues, and I'm offered rewards that would probably take all the challenge out of adventuring. Not that it matters, as I won't get to use this character again. At least he gets a happy retirement rather than a hideous death.

Monday, 25 November 2013

A Rag-Bag of Singular Happenings

I'm pretty much out of even vaguely interesting anecdotes about how I came into possession of Tunnels & Trolls solos. As with pretty much every subsequent adventure, I got Michael A. Stackpole's Red Circle on eBay, and the only remotely noteworthy fact about that is that it was the very last official T&T solo to be added to my collection. I was glad to finally track down a copy in late 2009, not only because it completed the series, but also because it was a particularly troublesome title to search for - do you have any idea how many non-gamebook-related results a search for 'red circle' produces? And fine-tuning the search was fiddly because of the number of ways in which the name of the system can be rendered: Tunnels and Trolls, Tunnels & Trolls, T&T...

It's a little odd that after spending so long trying to get hold of the adventure, I never got around to playing it in the intervening years. Perhaps because, as Mr. Spock once put it, 'having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting'. But it's next in sequence, and claims to be playable with characters of any level, so now is the time that I shall actually have a go at it. Maybe I'll even find out why the circle on the front cover is blue.

The rules say nothing about magic users not being allowed, but there's nothing to indicate that the text allows for spell usage either, so I create a warrior. A Dwarf warrior, because the poor-to-average in everything but Charisma character initially rolled up would be even more doomed than usual for T&T.
Strength: 18
Intelligence: 9
Luck: 6
Constitution: 22
Dexterity: 7
Charisma: 10
Speed: 11
Between that Luck and that Dexterity, he's probably still toast (especially when his low starting funds also limit the number of weapons available), but at least like that there's no possibility of doing negative damage in battle.

At the stat of the adventure I'm travelling along a caravan route, despite the rumours that it's the hunting ground for a group of raiders known as the Red Circle. Fortunately for me, the Red Circle seem less interested in lone travellers than in actual caravans. Which isn't such good luck for the people in the caravan I've been following, as they've been slaughtered and robbed. I search the remains for survivors, and find one man still alive. Not for long, though, and he's one of the attackers. Before expiring, he defiantly tells me that the killing will continue as long as Baron Valdemar attempts to take over their lands. The situation just got a lot more complicated.

I don't know a lot about the Baron, beyond the fact that he's arrogant and not that wealthy. None of the options open to me here are all that appealing: searching for the raiders and making enquiries about the Baron both look like excellent ways to wind up attracting the attention of hostile individuals with sharp implements, while reporting the fate of the caravan could lead to inaccurate accusations of complicity in the attack, or at least accusations of cowardice. Still, the latter does look the least suicidal option, so I head back to the last village I passed through.

Unexpectedly, I am commended for letting the authorities know about the attack. They conclude that the next caravan will need more guards, and I get a hefty Experience bonus for assisting them towards this discovery. I have the option of quitting the adventure now, while I'm ahead, but that would make for a rather weak ending, so I'll head on to where the caravan was supposed to be going, and let them know that it's been indefinitely delayed.

At the intended destination, Valdemarton, I steer clear of the Baron's castle and make for one of the local establishments. The Dusty Rose Tavern has the more interesting name, so I pick that rather than the Inn. Customers include a couple of the Baron's men and a prospector. Definitely not asking about the Baron. I mention the fate of the caravan instead, and most of the people in the Tavern are surprised. Not the Baron's men, though. They stumble up to me, obviously having had rather too much to drink, and accuse me of looting the caravan. The taller of the two reaches for his dagger, while the other one shoves me. I hit him with a tankard, dodge the other guard's inept attack, and slam his head into the bar.

Applause from the doorway draws my attention to another man in the Baron's colours. To my surprise, he's not being sarcastic: he saw that their attack was unprovoked, and is impressed that I managed to protect myself with non-lethal force. He introduces himself as Valdemar's nephew Vlad, and offers to take me to meet his uncle. This isn't the sort of offer that can be politely turned down, so I accept as cheerfully as I can feign.

The Baron is shaven-headed, and has an attractive woman attached to his throne with a flimsy-looking silver chain. According to the text, it's connected to a collar, but the front cover illustration has it end in a band around her wrist. The Baron asks me what I know about Dhesiri (the answer being 'so little, I wouldn't even know there was an 'h' in the word unless he aspirated it'), and is so bored at my lack of knowledge of the topic that he drops me through a trapdoor. I land remarkably well, what little armour I could afford taking the brunt of what little damage the fall causes, and make my way out of the sewers into which I was dumped.

One of the locals sees me emerging and, not being overly fond of the Baron himself, invites me to his home. On the way there he explains that the Baron is deliberately provoking the Red Circle because he believes them to have a lot of treasure, and hopes that their attacks will get them killed and allow him to claim their loot.

Riders appear atop a hill not far off. Festus, my new friend, suspects that they're after him or me - or both of us. He gives me the option of hiding in his root cellar, but I can't imagine that working out, so I choose to fight alongside him. These guards are better fighters than the drunkards in the Tavern, and I don't last long enough to find out how Festus fares.

A predictable failure, but I lasted longer than I expected. There's a good deal more to the plot than was suggested by the blurb, and illustrations I couldn't help but notice make it clearer that there's at least one whole plot strand I never got anywhere near. I also like that the morality of the set-up is greyer than usual for gamebooks. Definitely worth a replay at some point, as I'd like to find out more about what is going on here.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

How Many Deaths Will It Take Till He Knows That Too Many People Have Died?

Today being the 50th anniversary of the broadcast of the very first episode of Doctor Who, it should come as no great surprise that I'm playing the second of the DW gamebooks released by FASA to tie in with their RPG, William H. Keith Jr.'s Doctor Who And the Vortex Crystal (the idiosyncratic capitalisation is as on the book cover). I acquired my copy the first time I went to Forever People, en route to an open day at Bristol University. The book occupied my attention for a fair bit of the return journey, and it didn't take me long to spot instances of authorial sloppiness.

The 'which Doctor does the book feature?' confusion of the previous book had been cleared up by the time this one came out, so the cover illustration depicts the Fourth Doctor and Sarah-Jane Smith. Twice, in fact - with a portrait of the two of them overshadowing a smaller picture of them both fleeing slightly misshapen Daleks (too streamlined and shuttlecock-y). Since I'm being pedantic, I might as well also point out that the Doctor is wearing the big coat and scarf he had in season 18, while the line-up of companions situates the adventure in the nebulous gap between seasons 12 and 13.

As in Rebel's Gamble, I play the part of the Doctor. Following a failed attempt to return to late 20th-century Earth (about which little is revealed beyond an incident with an Allosaurus), the TARDIS hit a disturbance in the Temporal Vortex, and I've traced the source of the disruption to the planet Gathwyr. It's a rocky, foggy place, and Sarah, Harry Sullivan and I haven't gone far before coming across a lot of dead soldiers, who've been killed with a weapon more advanced than any of their equipment. Something tells me that Mr. Keith was rather familiar with Genesis of the Daleks by the time he wrote this.

It seems fairly obvious that the men were killed attempting to get up a hill. I can either try and find out what was so interesting/lethal about the hill, or head back to the TARDIS, and as the latter course of action is sure to lead to some contrived obstacle, I pick exploration. Harry helps himself to a dead soldier's submachine gun, and I try to convince him to put it down. This takes three separate rolls, making the FASA system second only to Sagas of the Demonspawn in the 'needlessly convoluted rules' stakes.

I succeed at the Charisma Saving Roll, thereby gaining a bonus modifier to the third roll, but before getting to that roll I must establish the balance between Harry's stubbornness and my Negotiation/Diplomacy skill (or I could use Haggling, but I have a lower rating in that - and these are pre-determined stats, so it's not as if the author doesn't know that, making it a rather pointless choice). Alas, the dice put Harry into a particularly stubborn mood, so the third roll is a foregone conclusion - the odds of my getting less than zero when rolling two dice and subtracting two from the total are nonexistent. Oh, and after allowing me to choose which skill to use (not that it matters), the book then insists on using a number derived from Haggling for the target of the final roll. Anyway, Harry won't put down the gun.

From the top of the hill I can see a distant city and a paved road, with unidentifiable tracks in the gravel. I also get a sensation of being watched. Again ignoring an opportunity to find out how the TARDIS will be rendered inaccessible until the end of the adventure, I also pass up two completely different 'go somewhere so foggy you can't see anything' options, and just head straight for the city.

The sound of boots crunching in gravel, and voices in the mist, again lead me to consider the possibility that there may be people close by. Still not going back to the TARDIS. And suddenly we're surrounded by black-uniformed troopers who think we're rebels and arrest us for being in a restricted zone. Sarah and Harry are escorted away by soldiers named Yavvik and Garrol, and I get roughed up for speaking out of turn. Attempting to escape may get me killed, whereas going quietly should at least give me a chance of finding out where my companions have been taken, so I put up no resistance.

Along the way I learn that the city is named Tharesti, and am again given the chance to make a break for it. Still no. Inside Tharesti I am taken to the tallest building, the Tower of the Masters. My captor doesn't expect me to come out again. Soldiers hustle me into a lift, and I note that (strangely enough) I'm on Level 5. We descend to Level 2, and I'm thrown into a cell, where I uncharacteristically regret the impossibility of making a 'doomsday weapon' out of jelly babies.

If I'd been injured, I could recover here (though if I'd been killed and regenerated, any damage done there would persist, which suggests that I was wise not to try and get away from my captors). I come up with a risky plan for getting out of the cell, but the book won't tell me what it is unless I decide to go through with it, so I think I'll just wait and see what happens next.

52 minutes and 40 seconds later, two soldiers come to take me up a couple of levels. Probably for interrogation. Based on my hazy memories of the adventure, I'm pretty sure that even a successful escape just means I run around encountering padding until the shock encounter with the surprise enemies depicted on the cover, so to try and get the plot moving, I continue to offer no resistance.

One of the guards says how much he hates going to see... them, and the other tells him to shut up. I agree, having no great love for authors' use of vague terminology in order to defer the revelation of a 'twist' that was given away before the story even began. The lift reaches Level 5, and a bald man in a bloodstained apron approaches. I'm chained to a metal rack, and the bald torturer's boss, Lord Kolav, approaches for a gloat. He reveals that he's answerable to as yet unidentified Masters, and then commences the interrogation. I rather spoil his fun by being chatty and cooperative and not giving him any reason to use the torture device to which I'm attached. He has me subjected to the pain inducer a couple of times anyway, but by giving answers accurate enough to avoid triggering the lie detectors, I continue to deny him the resistance he wants to be able to break.

And then, finally, the Daleks intervene and say they want to take over. They quiz me about the Vortex Crystal, of which I've not previously heard, and once my ignorance on the topic has been confirmed, they huddle in the far side of the room for a not-as-discreet-as-they-hope discussion. The writing in this section is a definite improvement on much of what has gone before: 'As Daleks can whisper no more than they can carry on witty repartee, I was able to listen in.'

The Daleks' debate is (perhaps not intentionally) quite amusing. Whatever the situation regarding this Crystal is, it's serious enough that they need my help in dealing with it. And yet there's a petulant 'But I wanna exterminate him!' undertone running through the argument. Eventually they settle on seeking my assistance now and doing the exterminating later, and I am taken back to my cell while they fine-tune this plan.

In case I managed to get to this stage of the plot without being captured, the text introduces the cells on Level 2 all over again. This time round I fail to come up with an escape plan, not that I'd want to use it if I did: any situation bad enough that the Daleks need my help is probably something that I should do something about anyway, if only to minimise collateral damage. Back in the cell I recover from the torture (another good reason for not trying to escape), again reflect on my lack of weapon-making resources, and come up with another unspecified and unwanted escape plan.

Eventually two Daleks come to collect me, and the 'seeking help, not exterminating' business is rehashed for the benefit of readers who missed it the first time round. Tiresome, but partially redeemed by my snarky rejoinder to the second Dalek's insistence that I help them: 'What's the matter? Your castors need oiling?'

We descend from the lowest level of the Tower to the Daleks' spacecraft via a concealed lift shaft. There's an awkward non-explanation of why it's impossible to travel between levels on the ship without passing through the control room, some mildly amusing conjecture about Daleks' hostility arising in part from their lacking the ability to have a nice sit down, and, finally, some explaining.

The Daleks start by telling me something I already know: this planet is the source of an anomaly. But they know I already know that, because they've examined the device I cobbled together to try and pinpoint the precise location of the anomaly. And the fact that they've let me know that they know that I know what I know is telling, because their ability to monitor the Vortex could have given them an advantage in their day-to-day interaction with interfering Time Lords who pop up unexpectedly to foil their plans, but only as long as the Time Lords remained aware of it. And they must know the consequences of letting me know that they know that I know what I know, so they're prepared to give away that advantage in return for my assistance in dealing with the anomaly, which means that this must be a serious situation and I should stop going on about knowing about knowing before this becomes completely incomprehensible.

Further info-dumping is summarised, and augmented with a couple of gratuitous continuity references because this was written in the mid-1980s. Cutting out even more extraneous detail, the situation is this: the Daleks' Vortex Probe detected something extra-dimensional that's trying to suck the entire universe through the Gathwyr anomaly and into 'some kind of entropic whirlpool'. And even if the Daleks are already sufficiently demented to want to destroy the universe, they'd want to do it themselves, not have some extra-dimensional spoilsport beat them to it.

The anomaly is somewhere west of Tharesti. Search parties have been sent to try and locate it more precisely, but any that succeeded must have been drawn into the anomaly, as they never managed to report back. Either that, or the Daleks leading those search parties were the highly-strung kind who self-destruct the moment they realise they've done something wrong, and they exterminated themselves as punishment for not finding it. The Daleks talking to me now hope that I'll be more successful in the search.

They have Sarah and Harry as hostages, in case I'm still unwilling to help. I refuse to let any Daleks accompany me into the TARDIS, bending the truth to make out that it won't work with them on board. They agree to let me travel alone, since they can rely on my loyalty to my friends to keep me from just running off. Nevertheless, even as I'm being escorted from the ship, I find myself formulating plans to evade the accompanying Daleks, rescue Sarah and Harry, sabotage the Dalek ship, and then turn my attention to the anomaly. But that would mean breaking my word, and (given the unforgiving nature of the rules) probably result in my getting exterminated to Capaldi and beyond, so I'll deal with the large-scale threat as agreed, and worry about the Daleks' sudden yet inevitable betrayal later.

We get to the TARDIS without incident, and I am somewhat unfairly surprised when the Daleks let me enter it and depart without attempting to exterminate me. After musing on the kinds of wacky devastation that could be caused by trans-dimensional flows, I arrive in a mountain range about 80km west of Tharesti. If I'd taken a different path through the book, I might have already been here at one point, and for a change the text gives an 'if you have been here earlier' option to avoid unnecessary repetition.

More precisely, I'm in a valley, littered with the millennia-old debris which is all that remains of the successful Dalek search parties. That's a bit bad, given that the Daleks have only been on Gathwyr for a few months. And there's more not-so-great writing, as I find myself hurrying back to the TARDIS for fear that Dalek search patrols might spot me out here. Do the words 'uneasy alliance' not ring any bells, Mr. Keith?

Back in the TARDIS I discover that only a couple of seconds passed during the fifteen minutes I spent exploring the valley. Musing on what could warp time in such a manner, I get another continuity reference, and then have to make a roll to determine whether or not I figure out what's going on. The modifiers for the roll elicit further irritation. Since my first encounter with the Daleks (in this adventure), I've been intermittently told to note down letters signifying clues I'd picked up. I didn't mention it before now, because it was just a straightforward mechanism for keeping track of things. But I did note down which clues I got. What I did not note down was when I reacquired any clue, because why would I need to keep track of how many times I found out something I already knew? As it turns out, the answer is 'because you get bonus modifiers for having come across multiple variants of the same clue'. And why did the book not specify that I should make a note of these clues even if I had already made a note of them before? Well, I can think of a few answers to that question, but none of them are particularly complimentary about Mr. Keith or FASA, and I try to avoid being rude about actual people in this blog. Bad writing is a legitimate target, individuals less so.

I roll well enough to succeed even if I've forgotten any repeated clues (I know there was at least one because I remember not writing C again, but there may have been more). It turns out that the source of the anomaly is so tricky to find because it's temporally displaced, a whole 2½ seconds into the future. Fortunately, it's possible to make that temporal leap without drawing on the combined power of two spin-offs, and I arrive in a city made of crystal.

The closest structure appears to be a temple. I decide to look for an entrance less obvious than the front door, and soon find one. Locked, but nothing the sonic screwdriver can't handle. The building turns out to be dimensionally transcendental, containing a huge void surrounded by a balcony. Walkways extend to a central platform, which radiates light. The source of the light is a pillar of crystal, surrounded by worshippers, and seemingly alive. Recalling the story that was the source of the book's most recent continuity reference, I realise that I'm in the presence of another Kronovore (sic.).

The ceremony on the platform reaches a crescendo, I see a vision of human and Dalek vessels being aged to dust in the valley, and a powerful wind... does something to me, but I'm not sure what, because the book gives the wrong section number. A quick flick through the book reveals a couple of sections that could be the intended outcome, one 10 higher than the number I was given, the other 10 lower. Neither is a perfect fit, both are lethal. And by penalising sneaking in so harshly (the odds of not failing that Dexterity roll are only 1 in 6), the book has thrown away enough of my good will that I can't be bothered to make a more detailed check to see if there's a section that properly fits the situation and doesn't bring the adventure to an abrupt and unsatisfactory conclusion. I probably fell into the abyss, but what really ended this playthrough is the sloppy writing/editing/playtesting of the book (delete as applicable).

Friday, 22 November 2013

We'll End With a Whistle and End With a Bang

I don't remember the circumstances of my buying Stephen Hand's first Fighting Fantasy book, Dead of Night (co-written with Jim Bambra). My first attempt is a little clearer in memory - I'm pretty sure I didn't use dice, I know that I turned back to the previous section to avoid a couple of deaths, and I now realise that it was ignorance about the normal size of jewels that led to my making the correct choice first time at the climax.

This is another book in which my character has a specific identity. A renowned hunter and slayer of Demons, who joined the Templars as a child, shortly after my brother was killed by a Demon and a strange ghost made a brief appearance at his funeral. My track record includes thwarting more than one plot by the Demon Lord Myurr, one of Ishtra's peers, and one element of the plot of this book is Myurr's attempted revenge.

In addition to the usual attributes, I have three special Talents (chosen from a list of seven) and, should I misbehave too seriously along the way, I may also accumulate Evil points, which can render me susceptible to corrupting influences. This time round my stats are
Skill 10
Stamina 17
Luck 11
Potentially enough for a win (a low Luck has doomed me on at least two past attempts), so I'll risk doing without one of the Talents that can make the adventure a lot easier, namely Dark Veil. This would, when used, make me invisible to most evil creatures, but has the peculiar side effect of adding a point of Evil every time it's used on the grounds that 'veil' is an anagram of 'evil'. Thankfully, the book doesn't inflict a similar penalty every time I live (another such anagram) through a fight. Anyway, I'm not taking that one, but I will have the also very useful Holy Circle, Banish Undead and Speak Demon.

The previous owner of my copy of the book filled out the Adventure Sheet in biro, and cheated a bit, giving him-or-herself 50 Skill, 80 Stamina, 92 Luck and all seven Talents. In what's more likely to be a misunderstanding of the rules than a momentary burst of honesty, they also recorded an Evil score of 100.

But I digress. The adventure starts when I have a vision suggesting that Myurr has kidnapped my parents. This prompts me to head back to Crowford, the village where my parents live, to see if the vision is based on reality. As I approach it, I notice that the road passes under the remains of a criminal dangling from a gallows. Not something that will deter me from my path, especially as the detour involves an encounter with a scarecrow that's no Worzel Gummidge. The gibbet is in a pretty poor condition, and the skeleton inside the cage mocks me, but I just pass below, experiencing nothing worse than a creepy sensation.

The villagers flee from my approach, and the clichéd 'mother snatches up a child and bolts indoors' thing happens. I've had better welcomes. The parental home is deserted, so I decide to see what the local priest can tell me of recent developments. On my way to the church, I hear screams from the graveyard. Anson, the new priest, tells me that my parents were found dead in their home three days ago. Or it's just possible - based on the semi-skeletal nature of the corpses, the malevolent gleam in the bodies' eyes, and the way in which, as soon as they were buried, a strange blight tainted the land and that screaming began - that they were actually crude demonic replicas.

Dead... Blight demons. Dead... Blight Demons.

I head for the grave to investigate, and Anson gives me a shovel. Not that I need it, as the occupants of the grave burrow out and attack me. Hey, I'd have sent flowers if anyone had bothered to tell me about the funeral. But these are definitely not my parents, and a quick Banishment eliminates them and their pestilential aura. As the Demons dissolve, I notice a metal tube in the gunk. This turns out to contain a map, on which a cave by the Weddonbrige road has been marked. Beside the cave are written the words, 'Captives held here', which I suspect to mean 'Blatantly obvious trap' in some too-obscure-for-me-to-know Demonic dialect.

Leaving Crowford, I decide to call on my friend Sharleena the Seer, who lives in the area. I'm about to take the turning to her home when I hear a wagon approaching. As I recall, there's nothing worthwhile I can achieve by interacting with the wagon, so I press on to Sharleena's. She invites me in and says she's about to contact the spirits. I watch as she does so, and an antlered humanoid appears, announcing that Myurr has taken my parents to his tower in the Northlands. She asks for more precise directions, and a Demon appears. It is compelled to mention the Cragrock Peaks, but prevents further questioning by slitting Sharleena's throat. I could use Holy Circle to protect myself, but my friend deserves to be avenged, so I attack. Not a difficult fight, but the dying demon manages to set the house ablaze, so I have to leave quite promptly. At least the fire will make for a decent pyre, and keep looters from raiding the place.

A storm blows up as I resume my journey. At a crossroads I see pitchfork-wielding peasants lowering something into a freshly-dug hole, and stop to ask what's afoot. They explain that they're burying a scholar who committed suicide, and attempting to practise the appropriate rites to keep him from becoming undead. I agree to help, but it's already too late: part of the way through the ceremony, the coffin's now-vampiric occupant bursts out. Thinking quickly, I immobilise him with my cross, while one of the peasants stakes him.

The crowd disperses, and I take the Weddonbridge road. Let's see what this trap is, then. The cave isn't too hard to find, especially with the reddish glow inside it. The glow is emanated by a flying stone skull, which swoops to the attack. I dodge its eye-beams and smash it with my sword, and the consequent release of magical energies gives me another Talent (I pick Meditation). It also causes the cave to start collapsing, so I depart, wondering if every place I visit from now on is going to get destroyed before I leave.

Back on the road I reach a holy monument, and stop to test out my new Talent. Some force compels me to open a hidden compartment, in which I find a Holy Amulet that I take with me. After crossing the Way River, I reach Weddonbridge (so why isn't it called Waybridge?), where an atmosphere of evil startles my horse and causes it to bolt. There are two buildings close by, and this is one of the rare instances in the adventure where the Sense Demon Talent would do more than just indicate that the Demonic figure approaching is in fact a Demon. Almost every time I play this book, I pick the wrong building here, and for some reason knowing that doesn't seem to help. Only this time I second-guessed my second-guessing, and made the right decision. Well, as right as is possible here - I merely get jumped by a Moon Demon while entering the inn, rather than risk decapitation in a trap. And the villagers attack the Demon and cut it to bits, so only my dignity is harmed.

They explain that the village has been attacked by increasing numbers of Moon Demons of late, and they'll be evacuating in the morning. Assuming they can keep the inn Demon-free until morning. I choose to stay and help, and after posting guards on all the doors and windows, I head up to the loft to check on the integrity of the roof. Not good - indeed, it's already been breached. I use the Amulet I found to make the trapdoor down to the ground floor off-limits to the Demons, successfully fighting off the one Demon that tries to interfere.

I rejoin the villagers just before things get cinematic and Demons smash in all the doors and windows simultaneously. With Holy Circle I am able to establish a Demon-proof zone within the inn, and gather all the villagers into it. We wait for dawn, the Demons wait for my power to wane, and I win the waiting game, as the circle is still intact by the time daylight banishes the Demons.

Resuming my journey, I hear the sound of wings, and risk confronting whatever is approaching. It turns out to be a magical summonation, which grabs me and bears me off towards Colton-on-the-Marsh, and I sense that it was created by someone named Magrand. Attacking the thing that's holding me a hundred feet above the ground seems unwise, even if it is marshland below me, so I just wait for this trip to end. The creature drops me in a pool of quicksand, but I am able to extricate myself. Trails criss-cross the marsh, one leading to a derelict-looking mill, others heading for the nearby village, but before I can make any decisions, the village paths sink into the mud. Looks like someone in the mill wants a word with me, and after he's gone to this much effort, it would be churlish to refuse.

Zombies emerge from the marsh and converge on me, some cutting off the way to the sunken village paths, others barring the way to the mill. A quick Banishment gets rid of the undead obstacles ahead of me, and the other Zombies hold back, then sink back into the mire once I reach the mill. It has one door, which is a bit obvious, but the only other way in is a hole in the wall some way up, and climbing to it would require me to Test my Luck, costing me a point that could make the difference between survival and terminal sliming once I'm inside. So I go through the door. The handle grows a mouth and bites me.

Magrand the Necromancer is waiting for me inside the mill, and hurls a sphere of magical sludge at me. I dodge it, and don't give him a chance to conjure up another one. With him dead, the Zombies lurking in the marsh disintegrate. As does the mill (and I'm guessing there wasn't much left of the inn at Weddonbridge left by the time the Demons were dispelled, so my 'wreck everywhere you enter' aura seems intact). I'm able to grab a Luck-restoring potion before fleeing, and the inhabitants of the nearby village give me some money for ridding them of a troublesome neighbour and his eyesore of a residence.

Moving on, I reach a junction. Close by are a signpost and a shrine, and a quick Meditation heals my door-bite and gives me a vision: one of the names on the signpost drips blood, the drops forming the words 'Death-on-the-marsh'. Suspecting that there may be unfinished business relating to my most recent encounter, I head in the direction indicated, towards Stanford. Along the way I cross the River Merton, which fails to burble amusing non-sequiturs at me, and as night falls I catch sight of torchlight and hear guttural chanting from a nearby clearing. This merits investigation.

In the clearing I see a Moon Demon Mage, standing over an altar with unpleasant inscriptions, on top of which lies Magrand's corpse. Recognising that the Mage is attempting a Rite to raise Magrand from the dead as a fully sentient, Demonically-powered Abomination, I use Speak Demon to disrupt the ritual. This nets me a point of Evil, but utterly and irrevocably gets rid of the cadaver before it can rise. The Mage attacks, and I use my sword to disrupt its face. I also destroy the altar.

In the morning I reach Stanford, which is pretty quiet. A local farmer named Tom seeks my help: Skeleton Riders have been attacking and destroying farms in the area of late, and he fears that his will be the next target. Figuring that if the place is due to be razed to the ground anyway, I can't make things a whole lot worse by visiting, I accompany him to his home. There I meet his wife Gertrude and their daughter Kate, and work out a strategy for guarding the farmhouse. It has two doors to the outside, and four windows. I stand guard by one door, hanging my cross above the other, and set Tom, Gertrude and Kate to guard the windows furthest from me.

At midnight, eight Skeletons attack, the dice determining where each one tries to break in. The first bursts through the door with the cross on, and disintegrates. The second breaks the window Gertrude is guarding, and has its skull knocked clean off with a rolling-pin. So does the fourth, while the third is clambering in through the unguarded window. The fifth Skeleton repeats the error made by the first, while the sixth and seventh follow the third. Tom has to deal with the eighth while I hurry away from the door I was pointlessly guarding and Banish the trio that got into the house. Tom and Gertrude have taken some damage in the fight, but the family are all still alive, and there's still one window intact, so I'd call that a pretty successful night's work.

In the morning, Gertrude gives me some food to thank me for my assistance, and as I set off again, the farmhouse remains untroubled by meteorites, sinkholes, tornadoes or other potential means of destruction. A boatman offers to take me to Axmoor for 2 gold, and while that's not really on my way, it's a detour that could be worth making, so I pay up. Also on the barge are the owner's son Palinn and a strange old woman named Venghul. In the afternoon, Palinn falls overboard (unless someone knocked him into the water with a big fish), and I dive into the river to save him. This gets me my fare refunded, and Venghul offers to tell my fortune. She's not able to offer much advice, but does give me one hint that would be useful in the endgame if I hadn't hit on the right course of action straight off back in 1989.

Axmoor is in a pretty horrendous state when we get there, and just after I step ashore, tentacles erupt from the waters of the river. I fight them to buy the barge time to get away. My toughest fight yet this adventure, but I win, and my erstwhile companions are safe. Turning my attention to what remains of Axmoor, I find that much of the village has been demolished to make way for a monstrous organic edifice that spews noxious smoke into the air. To destroy this I'll have to get inside, and I ignore the obvious entrance in favour of a hole in the ground that may be the living building's sphincter. The less said about the next few minutes, the better (and if I'd been Unlucky, that would have been one of the worst possible ways of dying in a gamebook), but I make it into the building okay.

Taking a narrow and damp turning, I proceed to a dungeon where two Demonic Servants stand guard over dozens or prisoners. Attacking, I easily defeat the guards (assisted by the fact that a Demonic Servant is automatically destroyed if its opponent wins two consecutive rounds of combat - FF veterans are likely to understand if I call them the opposite of Razaak). However, while I can unlock the cells, I am unable to free the captives, who are held in place by the influence of the building, and will be fed into its furnaces unless I can destroy it.

Heading back along the corridor, I ignore steps leading to a hatch for the moment and proceed to a chamber that radiates heat and emits the sound of grinding bones. Inside is a massive heart, connected by vein-like pipes to a ramshackle-looking contraption. Operating the controls is another Demonic Servant, who doesn't last any longer than the last couple I encountered. Turning my attention to the control panel, I see three dials connected to tubes, which have been labelled in Demonic script. The wildly throbbing red tube reads 'FEED', the more gently pulsating blue one says 'DRAIN', and the unmoving green one is marked 'ADDITIVE'. I switch off the feed tube, the chamber starts acting like a Bond villain's base in the final reel of the movie, and something big and nasty-looking begins to emerge from a split in the wall. I don't loiter to find out what it is.

Now I ascend to that hatch, which opens into another corridor. At one end is a door, at the other an archway leading outside, and guarded by three Demonic Servants that appear to be in telepathic communion with Myurr. No point heading for the exit while this monstrosity is still operating anyway, so I try the door. This leads to the heart of the structure, where magically pacified prisoners are being marched into a furnace shaped like a sharp-toothed worm's mouth (not that I recall ever having seen a mouth on a worm). In the centre of the chamber is a Death-Stone, the 'seed' from which this Land-Blight has been grown. But before I destroy that, I need to take out the furnace. A Demonic Servant tries to get in my way, and actually does significant damage before I kill it. The others fail to react, awaiting instructions from their master, who must be busy with some other part of his plot for global conquest, so I hurl a vial of Holy Water into the furnace. The mouth explodes.

I approach the Death-Stone while the remaining Demonic Servants panic and yell that I'm here. Myurr is still on another line. The baleful aura of the Stone surrounds me, but I'm not Evil enough to fall under its spell. Still, I only know of one way to actually destroy the thing, and if I mess up, I'll be annihilated. Nevertheless, a Demon-Stalker's gotta do what a Demon-Stalker's gotta do. And if I use up all my remaining Holy Water in the process, then in combination with the Talents I have and the damage I've already done to the Land-Blight, I'd need to get 13 or above on two dice to fail. I pronounce the incantation and time and space ripple with the forces unleashed...

And just like that, the Land-Blight is gone, the surviving prisoners are free, and I've had my Skill and Luck enhanced by my contact with primal energies. And somehow Magic Circle kept me from gaining any more Evil.

Along the way to the next village, an Orcish wagon-driver tries and fails to run me over. The wagon moves too quickly for me to take any action against the driver, so I press on to the unexpectedly untroubled village of Dunningham. A hooded figure beckons me across, then drops the hood. I face a woman from the sixties Star Trek planet of incredibly unsubtle allegory, who has symbols on her hands that I recognise from Titan - the Fighting Fantasy World as showing her to be a devotee of this world's Trickster gods, who are neither good nor evil, but endeavour to maintain the balance between the two sides. And with one of the highest ranking Demons in all Titan gearing up to invading the world, I'm pretty sure that any balance-tipping she wishes to undertake will be in my favour, so I greet her. She dispels the illusion that hangs over Dunningham, revealing ruined buildings, scenes of devastation, and a wooden tower with a Sauron-like Eye atop it, somewhat anachronistically described as being 'like a searchlight'.

The woman has advice for me, but it will be a random mixture of truth and lies because that's the Trickster way. After advising me to destroy the tower and the Eye, she tells me a password to get into the tower, says which balance my destiny lies in, and instructs me to seek the pool. And then she's gone.

Hearing laughter, I decide to see if I can find an invader with a uniform in my size. Can I take on ten drunken Orcs? Let's give it a go. Well, four are too drunk to fight, and the others are slow enough that I can find shelter in a doorway, forcing them to attack one at a time. Two of them wound me, once each, but the outcome was a lot less doubtful than I initially thought it would be.

Continuing to the tower, I find one guard on the door. He asks for a password. I give the one I was told, and he lets me in, so I should ignore what the woman said about the balance. Beyond the door is a storeroom, where I find the sort of disguise I'd hoped to get by fighting inebriated Orcs - a full face helmet with a skeletal motif, and a cloak. I also find a Goblin on 'guard duty' in a barrel, who eats some mould and settles down to sleep. Sometimes gamebooks just get odd.

A ladder leads to the next level, where three Orcs are playing dice. On the way to the next ladder I step on a squeaky floorboard, but my disguise causes the Orcs to believe that I am a superior officer. One of them gives me a lantern to check on 'Old Beady' (I love that they have a disrespectful nickname for the Baleful Eye), and they pretend not to have just been gambling on duty while I ascend to the top of the tower. The Eye isn't as easily fooled, but when I smash the lantern over its lid, it burns well. So does the tower. That farmhouse surviving must have been a fluke.

The fire escape consists of a long rope attached to the roof. Amazingly, it doesn't burn while I'm climbing down. There are three places I can go from here. The pond is not the pool I seek (not dying that way again, thank you very much), so that leaves the Temple and the Courthouse. I try the former, using Speak Demon to negate the influence of the defiling graffiti, but the place has been ransacked. Must be the Courthouse, then. That too is ruined, but has a cellar down a flight of cobwebbed (and thus untrodden by Myurr's forces) steps.

I descend to a chamber containing a pool of water. At the pool's edge is a statue of a woman like the one who spoke to me, holding a functional set of brass scales. Voices overhead indicate that I was seen coming in here, and can expect company, so I tip the scales in a direction contrary to the one I was told. The pool glows, I am drawn into it, my Luck is restored to its new maximum, and I find myself on a barren plain.

A path leads into a dense forest. Without warning a large building appears in front of me, and a voice tells me to enter at my peril. I do enter, and a wind blows me through a hall into an insubstantial replica of my room at the Templar Citadel. Three doors with symbols on lead out of it, and based on my recollection of what can be acquired here, I manage to pick the one that doesn't send me back outside.

I enter a peculiar banqueting hall, that has no furniture, but the food, cutlery and dishes just float in the air. As does my genial host, who bids me eat and then introduces himself as one of the Netherworld Sorcerers, further servitors of the Tricksters. But here it is the Tricksters who have been tricked: Myurr has conned them into believing that the forces of Good are so strongly in the ascendant that in order to restore the balance, they must help him open a portal from the Demonic Plane to Titan. I've been invited here because the Sorcerers aren't sure what part I am to play in events. It's obviously important, given that Myurr will be using my parents' life-essence to open the portal...

Using Meditation, I contact higher powers, who reprimand the Sorcerer for being a gullible twit, and tell him to help me before it's too late. Embarrassed, the Sorcerer gives me the Sword of Demon-Slaying, which confers a poorly-explained bonus in fights against Demons, and offers to teleport me straight to Myurr's tower. I accept the offer, as it's about time I was starting to wind up this adventure.

Lightning crackles around the tower, which has live gargoyles on the walls and a nasty-looking sigil on the door. I erase it before entering, and find myself in a black corridor with monstrous portraits on the walls. It leads to a circular chamber, and I ignore the writing that starts to appear on the floor, as it's pretty much the opposite of a welcome mat. Three doors lead from the chamber. Clattering noises come from behind one, a metallic swishing from another, and no sound from the third.

I open the door with the clattering behind it. The source of the noise is an obscure musical instrument made from dragons' bones, known as a Demonic Pandemonium. It's playing a funeral march, and I can also hear a bell tolling. Listening to the music (it can't be any worse than the really experimental Philip Glass stuff a friend once inflicted on me), I find myself transported through time and space, becoming an insubstantial spectator at my brother's funeral. A mourner throws a stone at a raven, reminding me of folklore that says a raven can steal the soul of a person whose funeral it watches.

Feeling a compulsion to approach someone, I go up to the priest, who recognises me as both a Templar and an older version of the nearby child, and hands me a ring. I've just become the 'ghost' whose appearance preceded my being sent off to become a Templar. Wibbly-wobbly... And then I'm back in the Pandemonium room. It has no other way out, so I return to the circular chamber and try the silent door.

I enter a red room, and somehow know that I've just gone through a Door of Teleportation. There are exits to all cardinal points of the compass, and I think I can still remember the quickest route through this teleporting maze from when I mapped it a decade or so ago. Let's see... Orange room, yellow room, green room, spiral staircase. Yes!

I ascend for a long, long time. An animated Horned Skeleton with a gigantic axe blocks the way. It's immune to Banish, but not to being repeatedly hit with my sword. Once I've beaten it, it falls downstairs for ages. The stairs lead to a room full of candles. It also has a window, with a raven perched on the sill, and a mirror. Whispering voices, gradually increasing in volume, advise me to go through the window, to pass through the mirror, to snuff out the candles. The babble starts to become unbearable, and my brother's ghost appears and tells me which advice to follow. I take the right hint (not falling for that Instant Death again, either), and wind up in a chamber that contains my parents, three Netherworld Sorcerers who haven't yet got the memo about their being suckers, assorted paraphernalia, and Myurr himself.

The Demon gloats that I've taken his bait and entered his tower of my own free will, so he can now complete his portal-opening plan (so would he have been thwarted if one of his minions had killed me on the way here?). Apparently my soul is the final ingredient required for making the portal permanent. But he hasn't got it yet, and what with the unclear rules regarding the bonus from the Sword of Demon-Slaying, and the possibility of his prevailing in combat even if I can use the whole bonus, I'm going for the more straightforward solution. Concealed somewhere in this room is a magical gem that allows Myurr to stay outside the Demonic Plane. Destroy it, and he'll be banished.

Of course, Myurr has concealed the gem extremely well. It could be almost anywhere. It could be in the crystal ball, inside the pyramid of bones, embedded in the dagger, between the pages of the book, concealed in the chalice, or stuck under any one of a hundred candles. However I happen to know it's in the water barrel place that seemed so blatantly obvious to my seventeen-year-old self. As I head for it, Myurr realises that things aren't going as well as he'd hoped, and makes a last-ditch attempt to subvert me to his side. To resist, I must get above 1 (my Evil score) on two dice. That's the total score, not needing to get 2-6 on each one.

Unsurprisingly, I do not succumb to his power, and while he's waiting for me to acknowledge him as my new master, I smash the gem. It explodes, but the priest's ring and the Sword of Demon-Slaying both magically shield me from the blast. Myurr threatens revenge before being expelled from the world, the Sorcerers vanish, and I advise my parents to start running: given my track record, this tower's not going to last much longer, and we have a lot of stairs to descend.

That was fun. One of the fairer FF books from the second half of the run - the worst unavoidable opponent only has 8 Skill, and common sense or in-text clues aid with avoiding most of the Instant Deaths scattered around. There's also more than one way of making it to the end alive - I went for one of the more eventful routes, but there are alternatives, and interesting encounters that I missed on this playthrough.

I've mentioned the odd flaw here and there, and the book would be even better if they were fixed (sort out that Sword bonus and it might be worth having a go at the big fight in the endgame), but besides being playable, it also has a better-than-usual 'save the world' plot thanks to the personal element, plenty of entertaining set pieces, and a storyline that's clearly had some thought put into it, with seemingly incidental details paying off later on in the book. Back when I was originally collecting the books, this ranked among my favourites, and it still does today.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

I Will Hunt You Down, and the Last Thing You See Will Be My Blade

The Magnakai sub-series of Joe Dever's Lone Wolf books starts with The Kingdoms of Terror, a book that has never made all that much of an impression on me. Assorted aspects of it linger in the memory, not all of them for good reasons, but the adventure as a whole remains fuzzy and ill-defined in my head, despite my having played it several times.

The first time I read it, my character wound up beheaded because I hadn't paid sufficient attention to place names (this makes more sense in context). When I was playing through the series by the rules (and going back to the start of book 1 every time I failed), the first time I reached this book, I managed to get Lone Wolf killed in a way that couldn't happen. The thing is, all the Kai Disciplines get upgrades in this series, and you start with just three of them, accumulating the rest over the course of books 6-12. The original Discipline set is largely overlooked. However, when I came to Kingdoms, I'd just finished book 5, in which I had all but one of the basic set, and hadn't yet got into the mindset of not having most of the Disciplines. So when the book asked if I had the new and improved version of Tracking, I forgot that I didn't, acted on information I shouldn't have had, and somehow wound up killed by guards. I was about to create another new Lone Wolf for book 1 when I remembered that I didn't actually have the Discipline that had led to my death, and therefore couldn't have died like that, so I went back to the Discipline check where I'd gone wrong and started over, paying more attention to what was actually on my Action Chart.

The implementation of the new set of Disciplines leads me to suspect that the Kai are actually Artificial Intelligences, and their Disciplines are software. The rules don't actually engage with the issue of the basic Discipline set acquired during books 1-5, but the implication is that they no longer work, as if they had to be uninstalled before I could add the new and (at least in some instances) improved versions. Since book 1, Healing has enabled me to regain lost Endurance at the rate of 1 point per combat-free section. Now it appears that I have to get the Magnakai Discipline of Curing to get the same effect. Similarly, it seems that the Combat Skill bonus for having Weaponskill no longer applies, and while Weaponmastery is a lot better than Weaponskill (a higher bonus, working with more than one weapon, and I get to choose the weapons), losing the old bonus for no good reason is a bit iffy. And while I didn't get Mindblast, if I had done, I'd be less than thrilled to find that it no longer works unless I get the .1 version, Psi-surge. Since the climax of the previous adventure I've spent three years in intensive study and training, at the end of which I'm significantly inferior to the dozy twit who knocked himself out on a tree at the start of the first book.

To give Mongoose Publishing their due, the reissue of Kingdoms does state that the original set of Disciplines can be carried across along with my stats and certain items. (Hang on, Backpack Items don't carry across? So the Combat Skill-boosting potion from book 3 that I was saving for the really nasty fight in book 9 or the even nastier one in book 11 is just gone? Expletive deleted!) On the downside, the bonus adventure in Mongoose book 6 implies that the main adventure has been George Lucased to such a degree that I might not be able to stomach reading it. So do I play as a shadow of my former self, or risk concussion from the headdesking that the retcons are liable to induce? I'll go with the Mongoose rules, as these books are tough enough without adding nonsensical restrictions. And in addition to the old set of Disciplines, I'm taking Divination (enhanced Sixth Sense), Weaponmastery (in Sword, Bow and Dagger) and Psi-Screen (because all the psionic power-using enemies in this series are just too powerful for Mindshield to protect me against them, even though it worked fine against Darklord Haakon).

Since the death of Haakon, the remaining Darklords have been involved in a civil war, so they won't be bothering me for another book or two. As indicated above, I've been spending the time between books learning Magnakai Disciplines. Well, three of them. The others cannot be learned, only gained by repeating a quest undertaken by the first Kai Grand Master, Sun Eagle, more than a millennium ago. He made a record of everything he did, but his handwriting has faded, so all I can make out is that I must start by fetching McGuffin B, otherwise known as the Lorestone of Varetta. It seems a little odd that the 'training manual' part of The Book of the Magnakai is still perfectly legible, while the only part of Sun Eagle's 'What I Did on My Quest' essay to survive is the part that was written first, but maybe his pen ran out part of the way through the first sentence, and the replacement was a cheap one with inferior ink.

Anyway, Varetta is located south of the region I visited in book 4, so I cancel the milk and the newspapers, and then set off. The first section mentions a couple of incidents along the way that are too trivial to merit more than a passing reference - being ambushed by brigands and leaving a bunch of them dead, getting VIP treatment in Ruanon, using my Kai skills to win handsomely at a gambling house - and then as I reach Quarlen, location of the only bridge over the river between me and my destination, I have to decide which gate I will use to enter the town, because that's not trivial at all.

This being a Lone Wolf book, I know what's likely to be the better one, though it's possible that if I'd chosen Pathsmanship I'd get an indication that this is an exception - then again, thinking I had Pathsmanship was what got me pseudo-killed back in the nineties, so whatever information it provides obviously isn't as helpful as it could be. And this is an exception to the 'rule': a guard demands a pass that I don't have. Offering a bribe may be a bad idea, and trying to just ride in is sure to mean trouble, so I just say that I don't have a pass. Well, either my thinking I had a Discipline I didn't happened later in the adventure than I remembered, or I chose very poorly back then, because there's nothing to prevent me from ignoring the guard's insults and trying the other gate. At which I am charged money to enter, seemingly for not being on wheels (the wagon and caravan ahead of me are allowed straight through), but it's an affordable price.

Not far from the bridge is a tavern, which the text has me enter. Among the clientele I notice some soldiers who appear to be mercenaries from Varetta, and approach them to see if I can find out anything about their home city. They fall silent as I approach, and are obviously ready for trouble. I'm not sure whether offering to buy them drinks would break the ice or be perceived as an insult, so I just ask if I may join them. One of them tells me to state my business or leave them alone, and as I'd rather not attack them or order a meal, I introduce myself. It turns out that they've heard of me, and are keen to get to know such a renowned hero.

After a while I mention the Lorestone, and get a hefty info-dump about it. Lots of people want to get their hands on it, because legend has it that whoever wields it will rule the region. It was last seen being dropped into the River Storn by Prince Kaskor, just after his belief that it would make him invulnerable was fatally disproved. The soldier who tells me the legend also mentions that the sages on Brass Street in Varetta know more about it.

I know that the need to consume Meals at periodic intervals is part of the rules, but six consecutive choices where one of the options is to buy some food (and the only alternative for the sixth one being to eat what I brought with me) leave me wondering if Joe Dever was on a diet while writing this part of the book. And in the midst of this obsession with eating, the book doesn't allow for the (admittedly remote) possibility that I could have enough money to pay for a room (which I just did) but none left over to buy dinner, and no food in my Backpack. Oh, and the picture of the innkeeper in the Mongoose book is inaccurate, unless your standards for 'fat' meet the fashion designers' standard where anyone who can walk over a cattle grid without risk of falling through the gaps is considered overweight.

And after all that, the food is undercooked, judging by the way the 'roast' beef is leaving bloodstains on the serving maid's hands. Besides which, I'm obviously not going to get to eat it even if I trust Healing to protect me from food poisoning, as I'm being directed to the same section to supposedly tuck in as was given for going up to my room without paying for a plate of warm raw meat. Yep, I get distracted by the arrival of an arrogant, duel-scarred lordling who's apparently wearing clothes made of wood and metal (all right, so obviously 'ebony and gold' is figurative language for the colours, to show how swanky and expensive the clothing is, but a literal reading is more amusing). After making demands of the staff, he seats himself at an occupied table, and within seconds he rounds on the old man who was already there, heaping abuse on him for daring to sit at the same table as him. He leaps to his feet, his hand going to the hilt of his sword.

Okay, hands up if you find this situation so utterly implausible that you are drawn to the conclusion that the arrogant youth must actually be a hired assassin who's been specially engaged in order to kill the old man. Because it would appear that Joseph C. Williams did, since he chose to include that 'explanation' in the tiresome mini-adventure that accompanies Kingdoms in the Mongoose text. Thankfully, while the 'edited and augmented by Joe Dever' credit on the mini-adventure implies that this preposterous retcon has Mr. Dever's approval, he hasn't rewritten the relevant section of the main adventure to back up Mr. Williams' bizarre theory.

Anyway, not wishing to see the old man murdered, I get out my bow and fire an arrow into the lordling's arm, causing his blow to go awry. Take it from someone who used to do archery: that's the most implausible element of this set piece. Cursing me and threatening to kill me for having the audacity to wound Roark, highborn of Amory, the lordling demands that the innkeeper return his cloak and sword (how was he able to almost skewer the old man if he'd left his sword in the cloakroom?) and staggers out of the inn.

The old man introduces himself as Cyrilus, a magician from Varetta, and my obvious interest in his home town catches his attention. I ask him about the Lorestone, and he answers evasively until I reveal my identity (which doesn't fit well with Williams' claim that Cyrilus was waiting here specifically to meet me because of a prophetic dream). Then he tells me pretty much the same things that I learned from the soldiers, and says he'll take me to someone who can help me find the stone.

It's unclear whether or not I get back to my (by now doubtless cold) raw beef. Regardless, the book says nothing about the standard penalty for not eating, and given that the encounter with Roark and Cyrilus would have happened just the same if I'd been heading upstairs rather than sitting in front of a plate of potential salmonella, all that tedious stuff about buying food was even more unnecessary than I'd thought.

In the morning we set off towards Varetta, and along the way we pass a village that's holding an archery contest, with a bow for first prize. Quite a nifty bow, too, but I'm reluctant to enter the contest because I'm not sure that my Combat Skill is good enough to give me a decent chance of winning, and I know from past experience that even if I do win the bow, I'd have to either give it away or face a randomised chance of getting killed. Probably at worse odds than the unavoidable '1 in 10' situations that have cost me a Lone Wolf or two before now. So I'll just ride on.

Further on we see a castle, which Cyrilus tells me contains a healing spa. He offers me a jar to collect some of the water, but I decline: between Healing and the profusion of Laumspur potions available, medicinal waters are not a priority.

It would appear that I've not remembered the sequence of events in this book entirely correctly. I'd thought that an encounter I've been awaiting was another of the opportunities to get separated from Mungo Cyrilus, but a few minutes ago he commented on this being a region 'where war and death are unfamiliar visitors', which ranks alongside 'one more day until I retire' in the life expectancy-shortening stakes, and now we're approaching the gate where he meets his end if I refuse to take any of the preceding bait. Just to drive home the point, he mentions that the gatekeeper is his brother, whom he hasn't seen in ages. He suggests that I go to the nearby ale hut or bread hut while he catches up on the gossip, but I stick with him.

There's no response when Cyrilus knocks at the gate, and even if I didn't already know what's afoot, Divination would warn me of the imminent ambush. At last the gate opens, to reveal an armed warrior who's aiming a crossbow at me, and fires. Bizarrely, when asking if I have Divination (again), the Mongoose text adds 'and wish to use it'. I mean, what's the point of having an ability that allows you to anticipate and avoid unseen dangers if I have to make an active decision to sense danger with it? And who in their right mind is going to go, 'Well, I could be prepared for this attack and have a good chance of dodging, but all things considered, I'd rather increase the chances of my being fatally shot,' anyway?

I deflect the bolt with the Sommerswerd, and (apparently in less time than it takes an enraged lordling to strike a blow, as I'm told that there's no time to use my bow here) the warrior drops the crossbow, grabs an axe, and charges at me. I make short work of him. Not short enough, though: while I've been fighting, five armoured horsemen have surrounded and captured Cyrilus. Five warriors against one old man might seem a bit excessive, especially as there's been no indication that his wizardry can do anything useful, but I can imagine that, as they saw me hacking away at their associate with such finesse and lethality, they found themselves less than eager to confront me. Certainly, they make a rapid departure, taking Cyrilus with them.

The speed with which I give chase makes no difference to the outcome, so I stop to search the body of my attacker. To my surprise, it's a woman, who wore unisex armour and used reeds to deepen her voice. Her face is vaguely familiar, and apart from weapons and armour, she has only a money pouch and a silver brooch. I conclude that this is because hired killers travel light, but then, I was making inaccurate assumptions about her sex a couple of sections back, so my conclusions about her profession shouldn't automatically be taken as indicative of the truth (though they must have been accepted and extrapolated from by Mr. Williams). The book makes me keep the brooch for the purpose of gameplay mechanics rather than from any clear character-based motive.

Now I pursue Cyrilus' abductors, and maybe this is where I forgot that I didn't have Pathsmanship back in the nineties. As it is, while my basic Disciplines of Tracking and Hunting help me follow for a while (and if I can still use them, there's definitely no reason why Healing shouldn't still work too), I lose track of the riders when I reach a village. I take a wrong turning, but soon spot a local who tells me that no horsemen have come past lately, so turn back without wasting much time. Could not taking the wrong turning lead to a fatal ambush? Quick peek - yes it could (though it's not automatic). Well, that's that mystery solved.

Anyway, it turns out that Cyrilus' captors were hiding in the village, so whichever path I took would have been wrong. As I'm heading back to the village, I see them emerge from hiding. Following a brief argument, they set off again, heading in my direction, so now it's my turn to hide from them. I'm not sure an attempted ambush with my bow will work much better than the female warrior's did, and Cyrilus is doomed no matter what I do, so rather than attempting to take the last rider in line by surprise and risking getting into a fight with the lot if he gets their attention, I just follow them. Bad choice: Cyrilus starts to slip from the horse on which he's being carried, and as the rider turns to secure him, I am spotted. Now I will try using the bow. It works better than expected, killing the rider who spotted me, and startling the others enough that I'm able to get his horse, and my ill-fated companion with it.

Not much further ahead, the road is blocked by another man on horseback. It's Roark, the lordling who attacked Cyrilus back in the inn. Having the silver brooch means that I recognise the family resemblance between him and the woman who tried to kill me. The other riders catch up to us and tell him that she's dead (though they wouldn't have bothered to mention my killing of a relative of his if I hadn't seen her face), and he goes a bit mad and calls upon a denizen of hell (or someplace similar). The only way I can escape is by detouring through a nearby churchyard, but as I do, a chill descends, cracks open in the earth, and the dead rise, startling the horse, which throws me. I have to fight the walking corpses, and the Mongoose text includes a reminder of the extra damage that the Sommerswerd does against undead opponents. Not that I'd forgotten, but the omission in the original text always did bother me a little, so the edit is welcome.

I rapidly dispose of my assailants, and see that Roark's summonation has gone out of control, and further zombies are slaying his men. He rides off, and in his absence the living dead disintegrate, but it's too late for the riders. Too late for Cyrilus, too, who was crushed when the horse fell on him. With his dying words he tells me where to go, naming the same street the soldiers mentioned. If I had Curing I could prolong his dying agonies long enough for a more substantial info-dump, but there's no way of preventing his death. I bury him in the churchyard, which seems a little inappropriate, what with its occupants having brought about his death, but then, abandoning the body or taking it with me wouldn't have been any better.

Towards the end of the day I reach another inn. A conjurer is putting on a show there, and invites people to bet on the solution to a logical conundrum he presents. It's not tricky to solve (though in a 'guess the sexes' puzzle the use of the gendered adjective 'blond(e)' rather than the neutral 'fair-haired' creates problems for the author - and the Mongoose edit really doesn't improve things), and by making a wager I win enough money to cover the cost of a room for the night, stabling for my horse, and a cooked meal. During the night, rats gnaw their way into my Backpack and eat the Meals inside because readers who didn't choose Huntmastery at the start of the adventure are Bad People and must be punished.

The next day I reach the village that I thought preceded Cyrilus' capture. There's a shrine in it, where old women tend shrubs with orange berries. Not having Curing means that I fail to recognise the significance of the berries (even though in book 3 what was needed to to recognise a byproduct of these berries was either Sixth Sense or Weaponskill, and I have the upgraded versions of both of those Disciplines). Still, I can stop at the shrine and buy some berries even with this strange gap in my knowledge. The berries are Alether, which can be used for temporary boosts to Combat Skill. I buy three doses, two of which definitely need saving for later books.

In the evening I get to Varetta and proceed to a quadrangle. Four streets lead from it: Helin (or Helm) Way, Coachcourse, Flute Street and Dever-Couldn't-Be-Bothered-To-Name-It Road. I pick the default direction, and after a while I see a Taxidermist's shop, and choose to take a look inside. The proprietor offers to give me a tour of the shop, and I accept, proceeding to his workshop when he invites me to see that as well. In there, he offers me a goblet of wine to help take my mind off the smell. Okay, Divination ought to be kicking in about now (I know that this is a trap from earlier attempts at the book), but it isn't. Maybe I need to accept the wine before an inner voice says, 'No, don't do that!', but if Mr. Dever has for some strange reason decided that the Discipline which should 'warn [...] of imminent or unseen danger' doesn't work here, that'd be game over.

Other odd things here: the taxidermist has decided that the last of the Kai is a suitable subject for preserving. But how does he know who I am, when everyone else in the book has had to be told? And does he really keep a decanter of drugged wine (or possibly a drug-tainted goblet) sitting around in his workshop just on the off-chance that someone interesting enough to have stuffed will pop in?

Anyway, I decline the drink, and the taxidermist just lets me go. Continuing on my way, I reach a tavern that's clearly popular with soldiers. There's an insane game going on in there as I arrive. Remember the legend about William Tell shooting an apple off his son's head with a bow? Well, switch William Tell for a soldier on horseback, change 'shooting with a bow' to 'spearing with a lance', and substitute a row of soldiers accused of cowardice for the son. Oh, and it's probably some made-up fantasy fruit instead of an apple on each condemned man's head, but the text doesn't specify, and the artists have both gone for something apple-like.

Not particularly wanting to see what happens if the lancer's aim is off, I decide to ask a barmaid the way to Brass Street. Before I can get her attention, a couple of mercenaries decide to try and supplement their pay at my expense. It costs them their lives, and gains me the respect of several mercenary captains. One offers to buy me a drink, and I can sense that he has no malign intent (so why couldn't I tell that the taxidermist was up to no good when he offered me a drink, eh?).

The captain is recruiting men to help with the siege of Tekaro to the south, and asks me to join him. I decline, but the offer remains open, and he tells me that his company will be at the town of Soren for the next two days. Leaving his table, I have another go at getting directions to Brass Street, this time approaching the tavern-keeper himself. After slamming two brawling soldiers' heads together to break up the fight, he writes me some directions, and I pay for a single room. My night's rest is disturbed by a shooting star (which seems more like a meteor than a comet, despite Mr. Williams' claims), but I'm still well-rested by the time I set off again in the morning.

Following the directions I was given, I reach Brass Street and find a Hall of Learning. Inside I see signs to the observatory, the library and the temple. From the mini-adventure I know that the observatory is where I'll find the man I seek, but in book 5 I found that strictly unnecessary detours to libraries can be a good thing, so I'll try going there first. All I find there is evidence that someone has recently removed every book that could help me find the Lorestone. Oh, and a bit of iffy gamebook design. When I entered the library, I saw another exit, and was given the option of looking at books or trying the other door. After looking at books, there's no further mention of the second door, and I'm offered a choice of moving on to the temple or the observatory. As I tend to remember section numbers (incidentally, in this book 291 forms a part of the search for the way to Brass Street), I know that that mysterious door goes to the same section as following the sign to the observatory, so it's obvious to me why the section doesn't repeat the opportunity to go through that door - even the less number-observant would be likely to notice if two of the options led to the same number. Less obvious is why Mr. Dever considered the extra door necessary.

Anyway, I go to the observatory, where I startle a group of old men who are poring over tomes, charts and maps. Only one does not seem surprised to see me, and I recognise him as the man who gave me a copy of a poem back in book 4. He reassures his companions that I'm Lone Wolf, then introduces himself to me as Gwynian and explains to me that there are people here who are prepared to kill to keep the Lorestone from falling into anyone's hands.

At this point there's a disturbance outside. Apparently my horse has been noticed, and I guess it must have a registration number on it or something, because that's enough to have revealed my presence to those who oppose my quest. We make a hurried departure via a secret door, and Gwynian tells me that the Lorestone is in the crypt of Tekaro cathedral. He gives me a Silver Key to unlock the relevant tomb, and explains how and when I should leave Varetta. I also get to help myself to a selection of items, and take three Meals, a Rope and a Brass Whistle.

At the set time I leave my refuge, following a tunnel to a copse where a horse with false number plates has been left for me. Close by is a highway junction with a signpost indicating routes to Amory (home of the lordling who wants me dead) and Soren (current location of the mercenaries who are going to Tekaro and invited me to join them). This is where I went wrong on my first attempt at the book because, not having memorised the contexts in which I'd heard the two names before, I foolishly did as advised by Mr. Dever, consulting the map at the front of the book and seeing that Amory was on a more direct route to Tekaro than Soren. It's also a point where the more narrow-minded advocates of the 'always go left' policy will come to grief. Lone Wolf's face is on 'Wanted' posters all over Amory, though this news is learned just too late to avoid capture and execution.

So I head for Soren, and Roark remains out there as an ongoing antagonist, still determined to have my blood, ready to make trouble for me in subsequent adventures. In theory, at least, though actually I'll never see him again unless I make a very bad decision in book 10 (or a perversely whimsical one in book 18). Towards the end of the Magnakai series there are several encounters with old enemies to tie up loose ends, but the Roark one is handled poorly, being on an exceptionally difficult path that can only be reached by making a complete hash of a meeting with a potential ally.

Along the way to Soren I pass through a hamlet with a prominent bronze statue. This is of the local Robin Hood/Dick Turpin-equivalent, and has a slot for making donations, should I want his spirit to protect me from robbers and highwaymen. Though it's also possible that there's someone watching, and anyone seen to put coins in the slot becomes a target for banditry, their desire for protection implying both vulnerability and ownership of something worth stealing. Not a theory I have much desire to test.

Further on, I pass another church, and see a man staggering around in the graveyard. He calls for help, and while I don't have Curing, Healing should still work. Except that the man's actually a decoy for bandits (have I switched Divination off?), and as I draw near, a dozen rogues emerge from hiding and impale themselves on the Sommerswerd. Well, they try to attack me, but what with the Combat Skill disparity and the way the Combat Results Table works, I kill the lot in the first round of the fight. I take as much of their money as I can (there's a 50-coin limit), help myself to the Mirror that one of them is carrying, and ride on.

At a ford I have to stop and eat, and both versions of the text omit the usual 'unless you have Huntmastery' when stating that I must eat a Meal or lose Endurance. Okay, so this Lone Wolf doesn't yet have Huntmastery, but given that the write-up for the Discipline states that it can be used to find something edible even in wasteland and desert, I can imagine a reader who did select it being quite put out that it apparently doesn't work here.

Eventually I reach Soren. This is on the river, and a sign indicates the cost of passage by boat to several other towns and cities. Tekaro has been crossed off the list because of the current siege, so I decide to seek that mercenary captain rather than buying a ticket to somewhere near Tekaro. Especially as the destination closest to my goal is called Eula: I'd rather not have to wade through dozens of paragraphs of small print before I can click 'Accept'.

Slight problem: the non-ticket-buying option doesn't actually allow for seeking the captain. Instead I wind up musing over whether to continue to Tekaro via Amory (bad idea) or the Ceners (not as obviously unwise, but given that that region is the home of the bad guys in book 13, I'm guessing that there could be trouble there too). Still, it's late, so I wind up entering a tavern to get a room for the night, and coincidentally encounter the very man the book wouldn't let me seek. He and his men are going as far as they can by boat, and he offers to pay my fare. Well, given the alternatives, I shan't refuse his offer.

A slightly awkward transition takes me straight to the hold of the Kazonara, which I suppose must be the name of the boat on which we're travelling. I then get some much-needed rest in my cabin, and in the morning I get my first Lore-Circle check. Lore-Circles are an addition to the rules for the Magnakai series: there are four such 'circles', each containing between two and four Disciplines. As soon as I have all of the Disciplines in a specific Lore-Circle, I get an Endurance bonus (and probably also a Combat Skill one). The text goes slightly over the top, claiming that these bonuses can raise Combat Skill 'to a level far higher than any mortal warrior could otherwise attain'. Tell that to my previous Lone Wolf - even with every bonus, he'd still only be the equal of a just-starting-book-1 Lone Wolf who got lucky during character generation.

I kept the Lore-Circles in mind when picking Disciplines at the start of the adventure. While I haven't completed any of them yet (choosing Disciplines that could help keep me alive during the adventure was another consideration), I should have completed enough to give me as much of a Combat Skill boost as is achievable by the time I reach the preposterously tough fight in book 9. But I don't yet have any of the Disciplines in the Lore-Circle I'm being asked about now. To be honest, I can't imagine many players prioritising the ability to hide and follow tracks above danger sense, improved fighting prowess and protection from psychic attacks. Expect further commentary on Mr. Dever's strange promotion of lesser Disciplines when I reach book 13 and rant about one of the most rubbish deaths in gamebook history.

The boat hits a trap (I'm definitely going to have to send Divination back for repairs), and river pirates attack. The text focuses my attention on a one-eared, split-nosed rogue who 'is relishing the thought of ending [my] life'. Yesterday I took out thirteen grave-robbers with one blow - am I supposed to be scared of one man who's been seriously hurt in at least one previous fight? I have no problem with colour text in principle, but this is like making out that opening a jar of pickles is a challenge greater than all Hercules' labours combined.

I draw my bow and try to shoot the pirate, but thanks to the unstable footing, I wind up hitting a completely different pirate. As split-nose advances, the book tells me to draw another weapon if I have one - what kind of idiot wouldn't have a second weapon? There are two slots on the Action Chart exclusively reserved for weapons, there's a hefty Combat Skill penalty for fighting without a weapon, and there were a Quarterstaff, a Mace and a Short Sword for the taking in the hidey-hole provided by Gwynian.

Anyway, I pull out the Sommerswerd and try to face the pirate, only to discover that I inadvertently decapitated him while unsheathing it (well, that's my interpretation of the one-hit kill I score in the fight). I then have to fight off a horde of berserkers, and it takes me three blows to deal with them. In the mean time, the boat's captain has fought off a number of pirates himself, and after smashing the pirate captain's head against the mast he makes a Schwarzenegger-level pun. Most of the rest of the crew didn't fare so well, though the majority of the mercenaries survived.

The boat reaches Luyen, city of flowers and wine, and I accompany the mercenary captain to the local apothecary. Of the various potions on sale, only an Alether derivative appeals to me. Browsing around town, I replace the arrows I've used in a second-hand weapon shop, and get a map of Tekaro from a cartographer. I could also buy a map of my homeland, but there seems little point unless I'm feeling homesick. Rejoining the captain, I help him carry his purchases back to the boat, and the next leg of the journey is uneventful. The boat spends the night in the port at Rhem, and the mercenaries stay on board because a company with which they have a vicious rivalry is encamped nearby, and the captain doesn't want any unprofitable hostilities to break out.

In the morning we sail on to Eula, along the way spotting refugees heading away from the fighting, and giant toad-like beasts of burden towing barges upstream. Disembarking with the mercenary captain and his men, I accompany them to their new paymaster's camp, feeling under some obligation since the captain paid my fare. The sight of Tekaro burning in the distance is none too encouraging, After spending some time in consultation with his new boss, the captain returns with plans for an assault on the city's main gate, which has been weakened by recent assaults. The troops are unhappy with this, as there are still plenty of archers guarding the gate, and the announcement of a substantial fee does little to encourage them. The captain angrily dismisses anyone who won't join the assault, and I gladly take advantage of this opportunity to dissolve whatever contract we have.

Parting with the mercenaries might have got me out of a suicide mission, but it doesn't help me get past the city's formidable defences. Walking around, I see wounded soldiers whom Healing will not help for no adequately explained reason, and spot pontoons being constructed by Ogron engineers and carpenters.

No. The ones in the book are blue. And skilled craftsbeings.

Then I notice a sewer outfall set into the city wall, and ask the Ogrons about it. They tell me it's been nicknamed the Hell-hole, because ten soldiers were sent in to explore it, and evidently met with complications. As did the ten Ogrons sent to find out what happened to them. Also, unpleasant noises issue from it after dark. I ask to borrow a pontoon to cross to the 'Hell-hole', but my request is denied on the not unreasonable grounds that the Ogrons will receive 100 lashes apiece if any of the pontoons are taken. So I have to swim across the river, losing a little Endurance owing to the cold.

Entering through the hole that presumably admitted my 20 predecessors, I proceed to a junction, noting with mild concern the complete absence of rats and other sewer vermin. After a while I reach a junction and a Mongoose blunder. At this point I'm asked if I have a map of Tekaro, and since I bought one in Luyen, the answer should be yes. But the map I bought was described as a Backpack Item (I had to ditch the mirror to make space for it), and the Mongoose text goes on to say, 'If you do not possess this Special Item...' The rules make a distinction between Special Items and Backpack Items, so either the Mongoose text is using the wrong terminology somewhere, or the map I bought is for some inexplicable reason not usable here. The original book lacks the 'Special Item' specification, and as there's no reason given for my not being able to use the map from Luyen, I'm going to just dismiss this as yet another example of Mongoose's dismal quality control and use the map. (A quick check of what would have happened if I'd had Curing reveals that using it to help some wounded soldiers would have given me a second opportunity to acquire a map of Tekaro - which is also categorised as a Backpack Item. Sigh.)

Using the map, I work out which tunnel leads in the direction of the cathedral and head that way. Further along, I see stone steps leading up to a trapdoor. I don't think that leads into the cathedral crypt, but I do remember from an early attempt at the book that it's all too easy to go past the entrance and blunder into an Instant Death, so I'd better just check. No, it doesn't lead into the cathedral, but to the city square, around 200 yards from the cathedral. The square contains many guards too unobservant to notice a trapdoor being raised in their vicinity, but probably not so dim as to fail to spot me if I try clambering out. At least now I know how close I am.

Less than 50 yards ahead, I see and ignore a side turning. And just over 150 yards after that, I spot a ladder ascending to a stone door. That adds up to something worthy of further investigation. The door is jammed from disuse and, lacking any Disciplines useful for door-opening, I must barge it open. The rules treat this as a combat, and I take more damage 'fighting' that stiff door than I did battling a baker's dozen robbers or that full-of-himself pirate. I think that's more embarrassing for them than for me, but nobody comes out of this covered in glory.

At last the door opens, and I enter the crypt. It doesn't take me long to find the right tomb, and I'm just inserting the key into the lock when the reason none of those soldiers or Ogrons came back out shows itself. A ten foot-high monster with hairy limbs and a reptilian tail advances on me. I fire an arrow - not because I expect to achieve much with it, but that might give me another section for Healing to make good my door-inflicted injuries. Yep, the arrow ricochets off the creature's scales, but if I survive this fight with just 1 Endurance remaining, that shot will have saved my life.

I narrowly miss out on one annoying feature of this final fight. Complications are to arise as soon as I've halved the attacking Dakomyd's Endurance. If my Combat Skill were a point higher, I'd have a 1 in 10 chance of striking my opponent dead every round (and those odds could be increased to as much as 3 in 10 with a suitably optimised character). So it's possible to instantaneously slay the brute, and then wind up being killed by the creature even though it's already-dead. Indeed, unless you already know the counter-intuitive way of surviving this battle, it's highly probable that you'll die as a consequence of your easy victory.

Two blows with the Sommerswerd, and the Dakomyd is at less than half-strength. At which point one of its severed limbs grabs my ankle, doing the first damage I've taken all fight (yes, the end boss joins the ranks of the 'achieves less in battle than a door'). Other parts of the monster are dragging themselves back together. It's preparing for a fresh assault. So I turn my back on the beast, finish unlocking the tomb, and open it. That's the only way to make it to the end of the book, believe it or not. You see, as has not been foreshadowed or hinted at in any manner, the Lorestone emits a radiance that paralyses the Dakomyd, and touching it grants me an insight into the creature's Achilles' heel, enabling me to slay it with one blow.

Now that I've absorbed the power and wisdom contained within the Lorestone, it becomes just a hollow sphere of - depending on which version of the text you're reading - glass or crystal (until Mr. Dever forgets that detail in a later book). But I've leveled up, and am ready to proceed to the next adventure. Good thing too, as this one has been a real slog (hence the longer-than-usual gap between blog posts), and the prospect of having to play it again does not appeal. So I'm definitely sticking with my save point policy.