Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Sand Is Thicker Than Blood

The 22nd entry in the main range of Tunnels & Trolls solo adventures is Andrea Mills' Caravan to Tiern. I got my copy (along with four other solos) from an eBay seller in America. When they arrived, I had a flick through them all, but didn't properly attempt any of them.

According to the back cover, Caravan can be played by characters of any level, and is suitable for magic-users. Time to roll up a new character and see what the stats favour. The simulated dice produce a mostly decent character, but with a catastrophically poor Dexterity, so I'll make this character an Elf, thereby bringing that stat up to just sub-par. Constitution drops to a similar level, but Intelligence (already my highest stat) and Charisma get boosted as well.
Strength: 14
Intelligence: 23
Luck: 12
Constitution: 8
Dexterity: 8
Charisma: 20
Speed: 8
It is recommended that characters with a top score in Intelligence become wizards, and my Dexterity has gone up to the minimum requirement for being able to use magic, so I'll go with the recommendation.

At the start of the adventure I'm in the town of Esturiat, which is rather too peaceful for an adventurer to make a decent living. Overhearing talk of the wealth to be had in the city of Tiern, I decide to head out there and see if I can find someone rich who requires the services of a mildly clumsy wizard. The only problem is that between Esturiat and Tiern are the Great Plain of Bijouwar and the Shamishant pass, reputed to be impossible to cross alone. I have the option of trying to disprove such claims, but if I'm prepared to wait for a bit, I can get a job on a caravan that's heading that way. The clue is in the title, so I sign on to help protect the caravan on its journey.

The narrative jumps forward around a fortnight, by which time the caravan is well on its way, and I'm one of the guards. Whatever financial arrangement I reached with the owners of the caravan, it doesn't seem to have included any payment in advance, so I can't add to my pretty basic starting equipment. That's not so big a deal, though, especially not compared to what else the section goes on to say. I have become curious about the tent of the rich sheik who is travelling with the caravan, and one evening, when my shift of guard duty is over, I sneak off to have a nose around in his silk tent. The text says that I 'decide to investigate', but I'm of the opinion that a gamebook should leave the major decisions (like, you know, a most likely illegal and dangerous intrusion into the property of one of the people it's my responsibility to protect) to the reader.

As I approach the tent, the sheik emerges, followed by three veiled women. He pays me no attention, but one of the women winks at me and whispers instructions to meet her behind the tent in an hour. The most likely outcome of my doing as she says is trouble, but at least here I get to choose what to do, so I abandon the whole inadvisable 'snooping around' tangent and get some rest.

Not much rest, though. One of the other guards wakes me because he's ill and needs someone to cover his shift for him. But for the undeniably verdant hue of his complexion, I'd probably be a little suspicious of his illness, as it puts me on duty at the time a desert-dwelling miscreant decides to attack the caravan guard. My Luck isn't quite high enough to enable me to avoid the thief's ambush, which may be for the best. In what is either a mistake or a case of Schroedinger's Gamebook (and this section isn't mentioned in the errata at the Flying Buffalo website), failing to overhear the approaching thief results in my confronting a significantly less powerful opponent than if I'd succeeded in the Luck roll. I know this because the section telling me to make the roll went on to list the villain's stats rather than providing a separate section for success at the roll. I'm not sure why - the adventure has 316 sections, so it's not as if an extra one would have spoiled a nice round number.

Anyway, my being up against the less formidable version of my assailant makes the outcome of the imminent fight more uncertain. What is pretty much guaranteed (unless I fall victim to authorial treachery) is the death of my opponent. T&T's basic first-level blasting spell, Take That, You Fiend, automatically does damage equal to the caster's Intelligence, which is more than enough to shred my attacker's armour and roast him. What I don't yet know is whether or not I'll survive. While the damage I inflict should be guaranteed, my foe can still potentially harm me if the one blow he can get in with his great axe does more damage than my spell. Which it will on a roll of 11 or above on 5 dice. But he'll need 19 or more to get through my armour and do any further damage, and at least 23 to actually kill me. Against the tougher version of the character, while I'd still be sure of killing him (provided the author hasn't cheated to render TTYF ineffective in the fight), he'd only need 9 or above to get through my armour, and anything above 16 would kill me.

Time to consult the Magic Matrix and see if the spell works. It does. He rolls 18, just failing to get through my armour. The rest of the shift is uneventful, so within a quarter of an hour I've regained the Strength spent in casting the spell. The damage taken in the ambush will not heal so quickly, and first level wizards don't know healing magic, so unless I find something that can restore Constitution in the course of the adventure, I'm going to be in poor health for a long while yet. Still, I fried that bushwhacking brigand's face off, which is more than most of my T&T characters ever achieved.

The following day, one of the other guards tells me that he's just heard about the local equivalent of Brigadoon, which is due to make its once-every-three-centuries appearance not far from here today. There's time to take a look before the caravan sets off again, and he's going to investigate, and wants to know if I'd like to accompany him.

I need to stop being so suspicious of my fellow guards. Sure, it's a bit convenient that this massively infrequent occurrence should be taking place right now, but this is a gamebook, so such coincidences are far from uncommon. Let's go mystical village-hunting.

My colleague Marcus and I go trekking across the dunes for a short while, and then the air ahead of us shimmers and a village with many architectural peculiarities appears in front of us. Marcus reminds me that if I spend more than a couple of hours there, I'll be stuck in it when it vanishes again, and then starts exploring it. I also go into the village, and get an uncomfortably restrictive choice. Another aspect of the legend which Marcus mentioned to me is the presence of a magical item in the temple, and I must either look into that (which probably means trying to steal the Foot of Power) or go to the tavern. While not keen on the idea of trying to rob the temple, I suspect that visiting the tavern is liable to result in my staying in the village for too long on account of getting drunk or being arrested following a bar-room brawl or just losing track of the time while gambling or gossiping. Given the limited options, I'll see if it's possible to visit the temple without felonious intent.

Along the way I encounter a pickpocket, who divests me of half my gold. I had an odd number of coins, and as I think it unlikely that he slipped five silvers into my pocket, I'm rounding the sum lost down, since the text doesn't specify what to do in such a circumstance.

Proceeding on my way, I reach the temple, which is shaped like a foot, with doors in place of toes. A beige-robed priest comes out and asks if I've come to convert to the faith. It wouldn't be very smart to join a religion without knowing anything about it (beyond an obvious obsession with feet), so I just admit to being curious about the Foot of Power. The priest realises that I'm 'a visitor to Allivar, city of delays' (the 'delay' thing sounds a bit ominous to me), and takes me to a foot-shaped altar on which lies a necklace with a foot-shaped diamond on it. He tells me that their god deals with would-be Foot thieves, and as I never wanted to steal the thing in the first place, I don't put his claim to the test.

As I turn to leave, the priest insists on blessing me, which has the effect of increasing all my attributes. Outside, I realise that I'm running out of time, and hurry away from Allivar. In my haste, I bump into a woman who's carrying bread, causing her to drop it, but just dash on (with no option to stop and apologise or help pick up the bread - not that I'd have risked the delay anyway, but it makes the incident into a slightly quirky but irrelevant detail rather than a potential hazard). Marcus has also finished looking around the place, and we return to the caravan together.

Back at the caravan, Ali Cambrasna (whoever that is - could be the caravan owner, could be the sheik, could even be both) is interested to hear our tales of Allivar, and gives me a cash bonus that more than makes up for what the pickpocket took. If I survive to Tiern, I'll be able to afford a wizard's staff, assuming there's a shop trading in such artefacts there. But that could be quite an if, as Ali is so impressed with my apparent skill at finding things in the desert, he sends me to scout ahead for the last oasis before the mountains.

I've been on my way for around an hour when a sandstorm blows up. Not seeking shelter means making a Luck roll, and as I failed the last two Luck rolls I had to make, I'd rather not risk a hat trick, so I make use of what little cover is provided by a cactus. Something growls in the distance, and I am not exactly tempted to investigate. The growl is repeated, now closer, but the wind hasn't abated, and fleeing into a sandstorm is liable to be at least as bad for the health as confronting whatever is approaching.

Well, whatever it was, it didn't come close enough for me to find out. Eventually the storm subsides and, shaking off the sand that has accumulated about my person, I try to get my bearings. This Luck roll is not optional, and it goes no better than the last two. Unable to get my bearings, I wander around trying to find some trace of the oasis. For up to three days, though considering the state of my Constitution, I'll be surprised if I even make it to the end of the first of those days. I fail the first Constitution roll by a narrow enough margin that the damage taken is non-lethal, but it still further reduces my chances of succeeding at the second roll. None too surprisingly, I also fail that one, and wind up dying of dehydration.

Well, this adventure appears to be an improvement on some of the earlier ones as regards playability - I had a fair chance of succeeding at the Luck roll that sent me into the Constitution roll-based death spiral that did for me. On the downside, I'm not keen on being pushed into a dodgy characterisation without warning. I probably wouldn't have had a problem with it if the text had specifically stated that my character would have questionable ethics - before now I've played the part of an assassin, a pirate a thief, and even Count Dracula in gamebooks. But on those occasions I knew my character was going to be a bit of an anti-hero, so that was just an element of rĂ´le-playing. It just jarred to have the text here assume that my not-specifically-identified-as-a-criminal character would default to thievery. Add in the occasional elision of significant details (I never did find out precisely who Ali was), and it's clear that the adventure, while nowhere near as unfair as many of the others, still has some problems.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Don't Talk to Strangers

Quite without intending to, I acquired the F.E.A.R. Adventures books by 'Jak Shadow' in reverse publication order. A little over 4 years after my first F.E.A.R. purchase, completism was finally satisfied when someone put up a 'NEVER read' copy of The Emerald Pirate up on eBay and I was the only bidder.

I explained the basic premise of the series in my playthrough of the mysteriously fourth book, The F.E.A.R. Agency, but as each book reuses the same half-dozen pages of introduction, I think I can get away with spelling it out again here. My character is a child who gets recruited into a top secret organisation dedicated to foiling the plans of Triton, a time-travelling alien who wants to mess with Earth's past and future because he's a villain.

In Agency it was technically impossible to fail because the adventure consisted of a series of simulated missions carried out in virtual reality, and going wrong just meant having to retake the test (only I refused the retake because gamebooks should have some bad endings). In the rest of the books, the missions are for real, but it's still not possible to fail (except by treating the 'go back to section 1 and try again' instructions as the defeats they should be) because if I ever mess up, the time machine that F.E.A.R. use to send me on the mission will be used to rescue me. No explanation is provided for why it's never used to rescue any of the adult agents whose capture forced F.E.A.R. to start recruiting children.

My mission starts with a trip to the island of Santa Diana, off the coast of Cuba. Apparently it's the location of the world's most important naval base, which is why Triton is attempting to conquer it in 1720. With the help of F.E.A.R.'s time machine (a duplicate of Triton's, based on one that F.E.A.R. captured in ancient Egypt - I wonder how the agents who seized it managed to travel back in time to be able to do so) I'll be sent back to 18th century Santa Diana to foil Triton's scheme or die get mildly inconvenienced in the attempt.

I'm given a device that should help me to find the 'time chip' that allows Triton to remain in the era, and can also take one of three other items with me: a compass, a telescope or a bag of gold coins (of course there's no explanation for why I can't take all three). I pick the telescope, and enter the time machine. It's on board a boat, and I'm the only person to realise that the boat won't be there when I arrive in 1720, so I'll fall into the water. Let's hope that the chip locator has been waterproofed.

The inevitable soaking does me no harm, and I swim to a nearby jetty. There's a fisherman dozing close by, and I wake him in order to ask some questions. Despite being aware of my location, I ask him where I am before more usefully asking for directions to town. He answers the first question correctly, but then rather than actually providing directions, he tells me how long it will take to get to town - or how long it would take if I actually knew which way to go. Undeterred by the unpromising start to the conversation, I keep talking, learning that the sailor is Hop-Along Jones (yes, he does have a wooden leg), a pirate in the service of Captain Green. He attempts to recruit me, and I turn him down. The book has me do so with unnecessary rudeness, in a manner that clearly shows me to be hostile to pirates, and as I now know too much, Hop-Along attacks me with his previously unmentioned stick. That's apparently enough of a threat to prompt F.E.A.R. to extract me from the situation, so I get dragged back to the present day.

So that's it for my first proper mission for F.E.A.R. As endings go, 'almost got poked with a stick by a pirate' is pretty underwhelming, but it's an excellent illustration of the problem with gamebooks that try to avoid imperiling the reader's character.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

One Day Left Until Retirement

As I'm going through the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks in publication order, but stopped collecting the series in 1990, the snapshots of personal history associated with each book will be following a much less linear progression through my past from now on.

During the nine months or so before I moved to Hull, I was back in Tunbridge Wells. I'd got rid of the bulk of my FF collection, but from time to time I came across books in second-hand or charity shops, and at times I reacquired ones that had made an impression on me, and then the appeal faded and I took them to the second-hand bookshop next to the old cinema on Mount Pleasant Road to get credit for other books. Mostly Isaac Asimov, as I recall.

One day I popped into the British Heart Foundation shop further down Mount Pleasant Road (next to where Hatchards used to be), and came across a couple of FF books I'd never previously owned or played. Out of curiosity, I took one of them from the shelf and had a look through it for interesting bad endings. A couple of the sections I read were sufficiently appealing that I decided to get the book, though I even when I bought it, I decided that I was going to play it and then take it to the second-hand shop up the hill - the literary equivalent of a one-night stand, rather than the kind of long-term relationship I have with most books I get.

That book was The Keep of the Lich-Lord, by Dave Morris and Jamie Thomson. I played it, and my character died when ambushed by pirates for being loose-lipped about his mission. I had another go at it, and won. With a little irritation at the fact that for unspecified reasons the undead-destroying charm I'd learned couldn't be used in the (undead) main villain's throne room. I wouldn't have been so bothered if I'd been allowed to use it and got told 'it doesn't work here because of magical wards/he's too powerful to be affected/it'd be too anticlimactic/some other excuse', but it rankled to have avoided using it earlier in order to save it for the final confrontation, and then be unable to use it there without explanation. So the book went to the second-hand shop as per my original plan.

When I got back into gamebooks for good, a friend from my university days came across a few of the titles I'd had trouble tracking down, and bought them for me. Keep was one of them, so thanks, Wood.

My character in this adventure is a soldier, just coming to the end of his term of service as a mercenary in the Arrowhead Islands. Not very bright, either, judging by the number of times the book has 'you' display ignorance about basic folklore or a general inability to put two and two together. I'm choosing to interpret this cluelessness as characterisation rather than an indication of what the authors think of their readers, because otherwise I'd probably get quite cross with the book.

Anyway, I'm packing when a summons comes from way up the chain of command. They have one last mission for me. For centuries the troops have protected the people of the Varadian Alliance from the reavers of Blood Island (is that the same Blood Island where Lord Carnuss trains his slaves?), but their main stronghold between here and Blood Island, Bloodrise Keep on Stayng Island, has been taken over by hostile forces. Thanks to a message sent by carrier pigeon shortly before the Keep fell to the enemy, the perpetrator of this attack has been identified as Lord Mortis, a tyrant and necromancer who ruled Stayng up until his death a couple of centuries ago. The message also indicates that Mortis' troops are zombies, and mercifully avoids the sort of 'Aaargh They're killing me!' ending that often adds a dash of idiocy to written final messages from the doomed in fiction.

With most of the Alliance's military forces busy fighting reavers, I've been chosen to try and re-kill Mortis. If I succeed, all his undead minions should die too. And if I fail, well, that's one military pension less for the Alliance to worry about. I'm provided with passage to Stayng, a map of the island, and a ring that will allow me to contact the General in charge of this mission up to three times.

Keep is one of the rare later FF books that can be won even with poor stats (it's tricky, but doable), so on this occasion I shall take the dice as they fall.
Skill 8
Stamina 20
Luck 8
Resolve 6
In view of my low Skill, I shall have to skip some of the side quests. And I'll definitely have to undertake a couple of the others, since they're the best way of avoiding having to fight Mortis in all his double-figure-Skilled glory at the climax.

After a week's travel I arrive at Stayng's port, the past-its-prime Siltport (which the map informs me used to be called Speculara - I wonder if the name change was a consequence or a cause of the decline). Distance from the Keep has kept it from being seriously affected by the undead hordes so far, but lack of trade has virtually turned the place into a ghost town anyway.

I pop into an inn, named after one of Mr. Thomson's previous gamebooks in the first of too many clumsy in-jokes, to see what the local gossip is. Rumours of walking dead and hideous fates befalling those who go out at night have made it this far. I'm asked what brings me here, so I explain that I'm just passing through (leaving out the minor detail of my intending to kill Mortis along the way, as I don't fancy dying in that ambush again).

I leave Siltport by the main gate. One of the guards, speaking less quietly than he thinks, comments on the unlikelihood of my surviving, but I ignore him and head north, in the general direction of Mortis' tomb. The road leads me to the village of Menela, parts of which show signs of structural damage. One of the guards brusquely asks why I'm here, and rather than snootily tell him to mind his own business, I explain that I'm here to help. The guard makes a sarcastic response, but one of his fellows is less of an idiot, and decides to take me to someone in authority in case I'm genuine.

The village headman explains that lack of supplies has forced them to turn away refugees fleeing the undead, and the village itself has been targeted by a monster that lives in the hills. He offers me 50 Gold Pieces if I kill it. Aware that I won't get much help in finding Mortis' tomb without helping the villagers, I ask for more information on the beast, and get told that it's something like a giant furry toad with a tail that can smash walls (hence the state of some of the buildings). The local blacksmith offers to sharpen my sword in exchange for some food, and as being able to do extra damage in combat could wind up saving me more Stamina than the meals he wants would heal, I accept.

The creature is not difficult to find, as it has left quite a trail of destruction behind it. I attack, and a series of catastrophic rolls results in my defeat, my superior Skill and Stamina not proving sufficient to compensate for the disfavour of the dice. Well, that guard at Siltport has just won his bet.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

What He Keeps in Storage Jars

I bought issue 12 of Proteus, containing David Brunskill's The Weaver of Nightmares, on the way to school on a Friday. Probably the 15th of May, as that was when it was due out. I know I got it before school, as I remember my eye inadvertently straying to a line of dialogue that gave away the solution to one of the puzzles while queuing outside room T. And further memories establish that it must have been a Friday: working out the Frog King's puzzle at my grandparents' home (which my sisters and I visited on Fridays), and seeing the disapproving look my grandmother gave to the free poster.

Some time later, in the course of attempting to work out the correct path through the adventure, I noted down all the elements of Weaver's major puzzle on a cardboard folder, not having any paper to hand. I subsequently used that folder to hold resources for one of my classes at school, and some of the other pupils in that class noticed these cryptic assortments of letters and demanded an explanation. I incorrectly remembered the key to the code (it's split across two lines with a hyphen in the magazine, and I got the two halves the wrong way round when excavating it from memory), frustrating classmates who found random codebreaking more appealing than the actual subject of the lesson.

That's enough reminiscing for now. What of the plot? Well, I'm the kind of adventurer who treks across deserts to find out if there's anything interesting on the far side, and that habit has just brought me to the township of Glengantha in time for an important public meeting. It turns out that the locals are in a rather tricky situation. That desert is encroaching upon their farmland, and will render the region uninhabitable within a few years. Thus they must relocate, but there's not really anywhere good to go. North are uncharted seas, and what expeditions have returned from heading out that way found no sign of land. To the south is the territory of the warlike Barlinnian people. And to the east, across a more charted sea, is Nanglidia, the realm of the Weaver of Nightmares. His lands could easily support the Glenganthans, but when they offered to become his subjects in return for being allowed to work the land, he imprisoned their envoys and sent a messenger to taunt the Glenganthans. An army sent to rescue the captive envoys was repulsed by a host of monsters, many troops being killed or captured.

Just after this has been explained to me, the face of Dreadthread the taunter appears in the air and states that the Weaver is bored, and has come up with a challenge for any Glenganthan who dares come to his house. A message has been inscribed upon seven tokens, which have been scattered around his home. If someone goes there, survives their encounters with the less hospitable residents of the house, and collects all the tokens, the imprisoned Glenganthans will be freed, and permission may even be granted to farm the Nanglidian soil. Having run out of deserts to cross, I promptly volunteer to go token-hunting in return for several meals' worth of food and what little money the Glenganthans can spare.

This is not an adventure for characters with below-average stats, though maximum scores are not essential. Nevertheless, I shall allocate dice, because a low Dexterity would make failure a near certainty. Thus, I wind up with a viable
Dexterity: 12
Strength: 16
The comparative narrowness of the true path still means there's a good chance of my dying, as many of the details have become hazy since I last played Weaver in 2004. But I could dig out the map I made back then, and at least avoid the completely arbitrary 'go the wrong way and die (or at least get dumped in the sewers and fail)' endings.

Still, even if I do use my old map (on which I am still undecided), it won't help me with the first part of the adventure. Somewhere in the woods just to the south of Glengantha is the home of Frowellyn, the local Wise Woman, and without her assistance I have no chance of winning this adventure. For some reason I never mapped the woods, so I'm as likely to wind up at 1 Dunghill Mansions as I am to find Frowellyn.

My exploration of the woods gets off to a less-than-ideal start, as I step in a snare and injure my leg. Limping on, I reach a clump of fungi, and decide to risk eating one. The moonlight may be misleading me as to their true colours, but some look pink, the others green. Pink isn't far from red, which is often a danger sign in vegetation, so I try green, and get a burst of healing that more than makes up for my wounded leg. But then I emerge from the woods and, my character lacking any awareness of the doom awaiting an adventurer who hasn't been equipped by Frowellyn, head for the harbour. Worn out by the day's exertions, I settle down to sleep.

Before dawn I get a rude awakening. Armed men take me prisoner and march me to a barn, where I am put on trial, my intention to travel to Nanglidia being taken as evidence that I'm a spy, while my sword prompts speculation as to my also being an assassin. Pointing out that I was more or less invited there by the Weaver fails to impress the Judge, who sentences me to death. I'm dragged over to a convenient gallows and hanged.

At which point I really wake up. They don't call him the Weaver of Nightmares for nothing. A mocking voice points out to me that some of the foes I may face in the Weaver's house will be illusions, but if I believe them to be real, they will be able to harm me. If I don't believe in them, they will have no effect on me - but denying the existence of a genuine opponent is certain to be bad for my health, so I'd better be careful when choosing what to ignore.

In the morning a ship is getting ready to leave, so I go aboard to speak to the captain, who's already on the bottle. Eventually he grudgingly agrees to take me to Nanglidia in return for 10 gold pieces, and as I never got the chance to spend too much on magical gubbins at Frowellyn's, I can afford his price. The voyage doesn't take long, and the ship doesn't loiter once I've been dropped off.

The walk from the beach to the Weaver's house leads through obviously fertile land - just what the Glenganthans need, not that they're going to get it. The house is strangely designed, significantly taller than it initially appeared, with a strangely proportioned east wing, and one room randomly jutting out overhead. Behind the main door is an axe-wielding Giant, who introduces himself as Baulk and announces his intention to slice me up. I think he's real, so I get ready for some slicing of my own. Perhaps expecting me to act as if he's not there, Baulk is taken by surprise, so I get a free hit on him, but after that he fights back. My superior Dexterity enables me to fell him without taking a blow.

The room contains a chest, which holds several tunics too large for me to wear, a few poor quality weapons, and a scroll with instructions for sorting gold, silver, squares and triangles. I keep the latter in case it comes in handy. Then I go through the door that Baulk said leads to where he lived. Behind it is a corridor, with a side turning leading to a door, so I check that out. Behind the door is a room containing a table with assorted receptacles on it. As I step forward to take a closer look, the door shuts and locks behind me. On the table are four jars, and a bowl containing an assortment of metal shapes. Realising that these are what the scroll refers to, I take another look at it.

On the scroll are three pairs of statements, plus a header indicating that one statement in each pair is true, the other false. The statements are all clues as to which shape goes in which jar. Now, both statements in the third pair contradict the same one from the first pair, so that one has to be the falsehood, which makes the other one true. That, in conjunction with the second pair, tells me which shapes to put in either jars 1-3 or jars 2-4, depending on which of the second pair is untrue. Knowing that much enables me to rule out one of the third pair of statements, and the one that must therefore be correct enables me to deduce which of the second pair to believe. Silver triangle, gold star, bronze disc, iron square.

I have to turn to a new section to choose what to put in the first jar, so it's important to make a note of the solution before I start applying it. When I drop the selected shape into the first jar, the jar glows and sinks into the tabletop. The same thing happens with the second jar, and the text says, 'Now you must decide which shape to place into the next jar'. Not really - I made that decision when I solved the puzzle. It's only now that I can act on that decision, but any player who hasn't yet decided must be guessing. The shape I drop into the third jar is right too, and that only leaves one shape to put into the last jar. That would merit a gold star for deductive excellence, but as I already put that shape into the appropriate jar, I get a key instead. Of course there's a number on it.

The door opens again, so I return to the corridor and head north. I soon reach a crossroads and, working on the premise that gamebook true paths usually require far more to-and-froing than any sensible route in the real world, head off to the west. I decided not to use that map after all - I can't win, so I may as well just explore.

The passage just leads to a dead end, so unless I feel like trying to break through the wall, I'd better go back to the crossroads and pick another turning. East, then. No, that was a bad decision. It leads to a cobwebby, junk-filled, candle-lit room where Dreadthread appears again. He tells me that he might let me past, but I'll need both keys if I am to proceed. I only have the one, so Dreadthread laughs and disappears. And then the poltergeists have their fun with me, turning the bric-a-brac that fills the room into a lethal tornado of clutter. Not a particularly pleasant way to go, but by no means the nastiest ending the adventure has to offer.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Their Death Will Be Mourned and Your Name Will Be Remembered

Jack Williamson, like Keith Laumer, is an author of whom I'd never even heard before coming across a Combat Command book set in a world created by him. Andrew Keith's The Legion at War uses the setting of Williamson's The Legion of Space series, and has an introduction by Mr. Williamson. Apart from giving a little background on the origins of the series, the introduction includes a tribute to the 1930s pulp magazines in which the Legion stories were originally serialised, and a defence of science fiction's literary merit.

The opening sections assume greater familiarity with the Legion books than the intro did, as the invading aliens are repeatedly compared to the Cometeers, evidently one of the major antagonists in the books. Still, apart from telling me that antagonists about whom I know next to nothing are almost as formidable as other antagonists about whom I know next to nothing, the start of the adventure does a decent job of setting the scene. Villainous aliens with an apostrophe in their name are starting to invade, they pretty thoroughly trashed the first human ships they fought, and they appear unaffected by some of the Legion's best weapons. Oh, and there's a bit of dodgy politicking afoot, with an Admiral getting ready to take the credit if the invaders are repulsed, but poised to exploit some regrettable family history of Ulnar's to make him the scapegoat if the aliens do any significant harm.

Before I start making decisions, I need to do some research. There are nine planets that could be targets for the invaders, and I need to try and figure out which is most likely to be targeted first, as well as helping organise the defence of the others in case I pick the wrong one. Given that the preliminary conflict took place in the general vicinity of S.C. 170, I think it makes sense to check up on there first.

And it turns out that I don't have as much time to check up on the various planets as had been implied. Having established that whatever human presence there was in the S.C. 170 region will almost certainly have been wiped out, I must either head there anyway to find out if the debris of the ships destroyed in the first engagement can tell me anything worth knowing, or pay the as yet unspecified price of taking more time to check data. I doubt that picking over the wreckage is the optimal choice, so I'd better find out the consequences of delay... A morale check, which I pass. But there will be a morale check each time I look into another planet, and a 1 in 6 chance of failing each check means that I should choose my planets carefully. Still, this section also provides a glimpse of Ulnar's musings, which include details of the highest priority planets - Thule, rumoured to be the aliens' next target, Baal, the most heavily populated planet, and Derron's World, which has the greatest mineral wealth.

Next I look up Thule. The aliens appeared to be heading that way, my second-in-command's sister lives there, and a quick review of troop deployment indicates this to be the worst-defended planet in the system. Looks like the place to go, and as checking out any other planet would mean another two morale checks (I can only take the fleet to whichever location I've just researched, so if I were to turn my attention to, say, Derron's World, I'd then have to scrutinise Thule again before I could go there - not a game-breaking flaw, but certainly tiresome), Ulnar shall head there without further ado.

Ominously, the flagship's Captain seems surprised at Ulnar's choice of destination. Should I have gone for somewhere closer? More strategically significant? I'm becoming increasingly displeased with the implied penalty for thoroughly researching all potential battlegrounds (okay, so it's theoretically possible that failing that morale roll would lead to Ulnar's delivering a big pep talk that fires up the troops so much, they get a hefty bonus in combat, but it's a lot more likely that the consequences will be negative, isn't it?).

Ships cannot be easily contacted while using geodyne drive, so there will be no updates on the situation during the (checks charts) 22-day journey to Thule. If I'd known that, I might have gone for somewhere closer just so as not to be incommunicado for such a long time. But there's only a passing reference to this pretty major issue in the 'Technology and Tactics of The Legion in Space' appendix (which I only found out about in any case because it's next to the Travel Time Chart - would it have killed someone at Ace Books to add a line in the rules section to say, 'Incidentally, there's a load of info you might find important at the back of the book, so maybe consider checking it out before you make any major decisions'?), and in any case, it just describes communication with ships in FTL as 'problematic' rather than indicating that this could mean being out of contact with everyone for almost a month.

Talking of things that are problematic, it would appear that that whole research tangent was supposed to be ignored anyway, as looking up details of planets caused me to miss the section in which news comes in of a surprise attack on Endymion. Thus, when we arrive at Thule, there's a load of stuff about findings made in the light of an incident I hadn't even heard had occurred. Basically, the aliens outnumber and outgun the human ships, they've been able to access data from the ships they defeated at S.C. 170 and learn a lot about the locations and capabilities of the human forces, and they're thoroughly generic bad guys with no apparent motivation beyond 'kill all humans'. I'm probably supposed to be shocked and appalled at how evil and merciless they are, but frankly the most horrifying thing to come out of the post-mortem on Endymion is the realisation that a book with such none-dimensional antagonists could get published in 1988.

The occupied worlds closest to Endymion are Baal and Ulnar 118. Baal was named as a probable target so, given the book's track record, I suspect that the next attack will be on Ulnar 118. Or Lochinvar, but that falls under the 'any other destination' option for where to take the squadron next, so I'll go for the planet that gets its own section. That's another 15 days without Facebook, but deciding to head there leads to the revelation that Vice-Admiral Ulnar reckons it's just the sort of place that the invaders might choose to consolidate their forces before striking at the Legion's main base. Just the sort of trivial detail you can see the author wouldn't think worth mentioning back when the reader was trying to make a strategic decision.

Upon arrival at Ulnar 118, I must choose between sending the squadron's destroyers to scout the system and just taking the squadron straight in. Split our forces and make it easier for the aliens to wipe us out in stages, or go for direct action and risk heading into a trap? Given the apparently overwhelming force of the enemy weapons, I'm not sure that having a few more ships in the fleet will make much difference when the time comes to get massacred confront the aliens, I'm going to hope that the book doesn't punish absolutely every sensible-based-on-what-little-info-has-been-provided decision, and have the destroyers carry out a recon probe.

Well, this time the data that's only provided after the decision has been made, when it's too late to make any use of it, is only stuff I'd been able to infer anyway. The outcome of the probe depends on how much time has elapsed, and I'm a couple of days over the shortest time bracket. Not sure whether or not that's a good thing, but it's unlikely to be as bad as the 'over 50 days' one.

Yep, the aliens are there. Over 70 ships, plus something big enough to invite comparisons with the Death Star, though there have been no survivors to report what it actually does. The destroyers are doomed, but does Ulnar just watch them get trashed or take the rest of the squadron in to make things slightly more challenging for the bad guys? How about warning HQ of the build-up of hostile forces less than a week's travel from their doorstep, eh?

I can't help but notice that the section number for leaving the destroyers to their fate is the same as the one for trying to help them and then attempting to withdraw once any survivors have rejoined the fleet, so unless Mr. Keith is being sneaky and has an 'if you did not try to get away immediately' in that section, it'll cost me nothing to do what I can to help. Not that there's going to be much I can do to assist 10 ships against the mere 15 from the alien fleet that are attacking them.

The first casualty is an alien vessel. Another from the fleet brings the attackers back up to 15, and they wipe out three destroyers. Another alien dies, and its replacement assists in the destruction of just over half the remaining destroyers. And then the rest of the destroyers go up in smoke, and the remainder of the squadron isn't even half way to the battle zone. I'd better retreat to improve my chances of letting Legion HQ know about the little surprise being prepared for them here.

Well, the section for retreating doesn't directly penalise trying to assist the doomed destroyers. It just ignores the possibility that I might have done so. Of the two potential set-ups it does acknowledge, the 'held back while the destroyers got trashed' variant is closer to the actual circumstances than 'the whole squadron got ambushed', so I'll go with that one. Which means a Morale check (9 or less on 2 dice) rather than a Stealth check (9 or less on 2 dice). I succeed, and am a little perturbed at the authorial decision to say 'when' rather than 'if' in regard to failing the roll.

Engaging stealth mode, the remainder of the squadron evades the aliens. If I were certain that we'd already fired off a warning to HQ, or could do so without breaching stealth mode, I'd probably risk sticking around here to see if we get a chance of checking out one of the alien ships we wrecked and discovering a convenient weakness. Given the way things are, I can't see victory being achievable without some kind of cop-out. But it may be that for inadequately specified reasons the only way I can let the rest of the Legion know about the aliens' use of Ulnar 118 as a staging point is in person.

Back at HQ I get asked if Endymion is the most recent planet to be attacked by the aliens. Probably, but that rather depends on whether the occupation of Ulnar 118 counts as an attack or not. I check both the sections linked from here to see if they clarify this point, and it looks as if the purpose of the question was to find out if the invasion of the planet Baal had yet taken place. Which it hadn't, for me, so now I get to learn that a small offshoot of the alien fleet, using markedly inferior tactics, wiped out the troops garrisoned there and proceeded to systematically eliminate all human presence on the planet. The text describes the attack as just a raid rather than an all-out onslaught as at Endymion, but I don't entirely see the distinction between the 'trash the defences, then kill all the humans' approach of the earlier attack and the more recent 'kill all the humans after trashing the defences' tactics.

Given the limitations on communications, it would be helpful to know when this attack occurred, as I'm now being asked if the aliens were most recently seen at Baal. If they attacked within the last six days, the answer is yes. Otherwise, the loss of Ulnar's destroyers at Ulnar 118 was more recent even though I played it out before learning of the attack on Baal. Again I sneak a look at more than one section for the purpose of more clearly defining insufficiently precise terms, and the fact that the 'aliens last seen at Baal' section just provides a clue pointing to Ulnar 118 suggests that the fall of Baal came first.

So, does Ulnar stick around here and wait for the aliens to attack, add some of the local garrison to my squadron and head back to Ulnar 118, or go somewhere else? Even if there's anything useful to be found on a planet he has yet to visit, at this late stage he's not likely to be able to get there and back in time for it to matter. I recognise the section number for Ulnar 118, so going out there would just mean the same ambush as before. Looks like the least bad option is to stay here a couple more days, after which a time limit will be passed and, presumably, the assault on the main Legion base will commence.

No, passing that time limit means that that troublesome Admiral mentioned early on turns up and puts Ulnar and his squadron on the reserve list. Ulnar spends the resultant period of enforced inactivity collating data on encounters with the aliens, highlighting anything that could hint at a weakness. The Admiral does his best to disregard all of this and keeps hassling Ulnar about paperwork. Back in section 1, another character described the Admiral as 'a good man'. If these are the qualities of a good man, I dread to think what a bad one is like.

At last the aliens attack. Ulnar remains on the bench, with a quarter of the fleet excluded from the impending battle because they're under his command, and the good Admiral chooses to disregard all available intel about the aliens. So does Ulnar obey orders (most likely dooming humanity), leave (probably shamefully dooming humanity) or defy the Admiral and launch an attack on the alien planetoid-ship that he has somehow figured out to be the only means by which the invaders can be defeated? Making one of the obviously bad decisions would at least enable me to reshelve the book, but then I might have to replay it at some point. Doing the Right Thing will make this drag out that bit longer, but does allow at least a slim possibility of being able to put the book behind me for good.

On the way to the battle, Ulnar runs multiple combat simulations, the outcomes of which are not covered in detail because I now have to select an attack formation, and how could I pick one if I already had an idea of the relative effectiveness of the different options? I'll pick the cone, since the diagram implies that that has lots of ships converging on one target, and I'm going to be concentrating my attack on the moon-sized mothership. Crazy, I know, but it may be interesting finding out how the book punishes this particular not-obviously-stupid choice.

Next I must choose whether to use conventional tactics or Stealth mode. Conventional got everyone killed at Baal. Stealth seemed to work okay on the retreat from Ulnar 118. And as Ulnar is already breaking the rules, adopting mildly dishonourable tactics (against enemies who don't seem to have much in the way of Articles of War) isn't likely to make things significantly worse for him.

The battle against the alien reserves guarding the mothership is going to be a bit complicated, what with alternating waves of human forces and a one-off set of reinforcements for the aliens after they take a yet-to-be-established number of casualties. Plus a whole load more if the battle lasts more than 30 rounds, which is the length of time it'll take the good Admiral and his fleet to get wiped out.

The first assault with battlecruisers destroys 7 enemy ships, but only around half of the human ships survive, and those alien reinforcements turn up just as the destroyers from the HQ garrison take over. I wonder what happens when they get wiped out (and it is 'when' - at current strength (and until almost half of their forces have been destroyed), the aliens eliminate a minimum of one ship every round). Do I just focus on battlecruisers from then on, or do the aliens get free attacks for every round in which the nonexistent destroyers are supposed to be fighting?

It doesn't matter. Before being destroyed, the remaining humans manage to decimate the alien reserves (that's the purist definition of the word, as in wiping out just a tenth of the fleet). The aliens go on to destroy the Admiral and his fleet, then go on to eradicate all humanity. Just to rub my nose in the defeat, Ulnar is blamed for it all, and humanity dies cursing his name.

Well, that was pretty dreadful. I've played worse, but I did have to keep reminding myself of that fact to motivate myself not to give up. It's possible that I might have to take a break from the blog while visiting family over Christmas and the new year, and in the state of mind that The Legion at War has left me in, I'm not particularly unhappy at the thought of a week or two without gamebooks.

Friday, 6 December 2013

You Can Learn How to Be You In Time

I wake up in a sarcophagus. Something - maybe a mechanism, maybe instinctive use of a power I am not aware I possess - propels the lid upwards, shattering it against the ceiling. Clambering out, I find myself in a treasure-filled tomb, with a dead man lying on the floor nearby. I think he may have been killed by falling chunks of sarcophagus lid. Paying little heed to the second sarcophagus in the chamber, I try and fail to make sense of the carvings on my own.

Something makes a noise. The body twitches. No, it's not coming back to life. There's something else alive in here, a silver-furred animal that had been concealed by the corpse. Keeping my distance from it, I turn my attention to the second sarcophagus. This, too, has a shattered lid, an inscription I cannot comprehend, and no corpse inside. Panic almost overwhelms me.

Suppressing the fear, I approach the dead man. The silver-furred animal is attached to his wrist by a leash. The gems stuffed into his pockets suggest that he was robbing my tomb, while the wound on his head indicates that someone cracked his skull from behind - I was not to blame after all. So where did the killer go?

I look at my own sarcophagus again, sensing a power I cannot release that is held within the carvings. Turning around, I see a vast crowd of people - a vision, possibly a memory...

I first came across Black Vein Prophecy, the second Fighting Fantasy gamebook by Paul Mason and Steven Williams, on the 20th of July 1990. I was in WHSmith's (which was still in the pedestrian precinct, where Waterstone's is now). There was something a little off-putting about the book, and had a thorough look through it, as I had done for Sky Lord. While my detailed scrutiny of the earlier book convinced me not to buy it, delving into this one rapidly aroused my curiosity, what with the complete lack of background information, the fact that the viewpoint character didn't seem to know who he was, and the significant-looking section that ended with a direction to turn to section 1. For some reason - possibly lack of funds - I didn't buy it then, but I commented in my diary that the book looked 'rather intriguing', and I definitely intended to get it and delve into its mysteries at some later date.

The man at the head of the people is about to say something when a tremor disrupts the vision, bringing me back to reality. Small bits of stone fall down onto me, the air pressure changes enough to make my ears pop, and cracks begin to appear in the floor. I suspect that someone in another chamber has misjudged the weight of an idol and put the wrong amount of sand into a pouch. Well, whatever the cause, it's time I was getting out of here.

The pressure becomes more bearable after I go through a small opening, but it has still discombobulated me enough that I blunder into something, which topples over. It appears to be a statue of a human, but when it falls over and smashes on the floor, a skull rolls from the rubble. Paying more attention to my surroundings, I see multiple rows of similar 'statues'. The destruction begins to spread to this chamber, but I pause for a closer look at the ranks of stone figures before me. One of them is larger than all the rest, and holds a shield and a nasty-looking sword. Initially it's crouching down, but as I watch, it stands and makes an exaggerated bow. Then it stops moving, and I give it a tentative prod. Well, it was tentative in my head, but in the book it's impatient. Regardless, it overbalances the 'statue', which is also hollow and contains a skeleton.

The pressure is increasing again, so I grab the sword and shield, and get a move on. Double doors at the end of the chamber lead out, and behind them the passage is blocked by a barrier of red wax. Was blocked, rather: someone has burned a hole big enough to let a person through. I hear sounds behind me, and look back to see clouds of dust, which clear to reveal that all the 'statues' have disintegrated. And yes, they did all have skeletons inside.

The pressure diminishes again beyond the seal. The room on the other side is in darkness, but a sudden flash of light shows me that the floor is pockmarked. As the glow fades, an acrid smell hits my nose. I hesitate, but not for long, as the pressure mounts once more. A second flash shows me an exit on the far side of the chamber, so I make a dash for it, trying not to trip in any of the little craters which dot the floor. At which point the first stage of BVP-style character generation occurs.

Luck: 7

For this book, that's a semi-positive sign, as the only way to win involves failing the very first Test your Luck, which I've just reached. As I recall, the point of this is to try and indicate that what appears to be misfortune can turn out to be a good thing in the end. In principle, I have no issue with the idea, but the implementation in the book is problematic. From a mechanical point of view, making the essential-to-fail Luck roll the very first one means that anyone who gets a 6 on the Luck-generating roll has no chance whatsoever. And even someone who gets the lowest possible starting Luck (like I did here) still only has a 5 in 12 chance of getting the required outcome. In addition, later on survival may depend on success at a Luck roll, so any character who has a realistic chance of failing the roll that must be failed is also liable to come to grief at the later roll.

As regards the story, not enough is done to make the consequences of successfully failing the roll seem like something bad until they are revealed to be advantageous. If I had a Skill or Stamina score at this stage of play, the 'Unlucky' outcome could be made to seem more problematic by having it cause Stamina loss or a Skill penalty, but nonexistent stats can't be depleted, so all that happens is the addition of another oddity to what is already a seriously strange situation.

All that would happen, I should say. Despite having the best possible odds of failing the roll, I succeeded, so I make it across the chamber without being affected by what causes the flashes of light and is to blame for the pitted state of the floor. That means I can't win, so I might as well use this character to explore some option I've left untried in the past.

Beyond the dark chamber is another breached wax seal, and passing through the hole brings the now predictable temporary relief from the pressure. The air in the next chamber isn't so musty, as a couple of lit torches with blue flames give off a mild scent. Stairs lead up at the far end, and I start to ascend. Then a familiar-sounding voice calls out, ordering me to wait. I turn, and see the torch flames merge into a sphere of light. The same voice tells me it is too soon, and implores me to remember all that the speaker taught me. Fat chance, when I can't even recall who that is, even if I do know that I know them somehow.

I don't know why I never bought a copy of BVP that summer. But I didn't, and then in autumn I went away to university. My priorities changed a lot during that first term, not least because it was then that I became a Christian. For a variety of reasons, my interest in gamebooks diminished, and I wound up selling off or giving away a lot of my collection over the course of the next half-dozen years. From time to time I'd get a burst of nostalgia, especially when coming across copies of books I'd once owned, but the books I'd never bought meant little to me, and I rapidly lost track of new releases.

Another pressure increase causes the stairs to crumble, and as I try to keep from falling down the slope of rubble that they have become, I find out a little more about my capabilities.

Stamina: 17

This roll I fail - just - and the mini-landslide takes me back into the chamber, causing minor bruising. The flames go out, and I clamber up the slope again. There's another of those wax seals at the top, and in the corridor beyond it I find a sword and a haversack containing food. I leave the sword, as I already have one, but take the pack of food.

Continuing along the corridor, I pass through another three seals, then see one more up ahead, with sunlight shining through the hole. Not before time, either, as the ceiling overhead is no longer as solid as it should be. Hoping not to find Death waiting for a game of chess on the other side (what are the chances of my character remembering the rules?), I dash towards the exit, thereby learning that bit more about myself.

Skill: 8 (Not too bad, considering that it's the roll of one die plus four rather than the traditional six).

Diving through the opening, I make it out of the tomb just before it collapses. Looking around, I find myself in a ruined city by the sea. Judging by the state of some of the buildings, magic was involved in whatever befell this place. From here I can see the city gates, so I make for them. On my way, I sense powerful energies, and get the impression that I'm not the only person here.

The gate was once blocked by a portcullis, but a hole has been blown in it. That doesn't mean there's a way through, though: as I approach the gate, a barrier of flame leaps up. I hear approaching hoofbeats, and the flames momentarily part to admit a man on horseback. The rider has purple blotches on his skin, and as I watch him head down one of the streets, I realise that he and his horse have been fused together. Curious, I follow, reaching an area where water intermittently spouts into the air. The hole from which it jets is of human manufacture, and a rope leads down into it, secured on a nearby grating.

A voice behind me comments that rats are always the last to leave a sinking ship. I turn to see the speaker: the fused horse and rider that led me here. It speaks again, the voice issuing from the horse's mouth as it asks why anyone would leave when there's so much room in which to play here. Then it gallops away, and I follow once more, catching up with it at a crossroads. It speaks again, its words removing any doubt that the earlier comment about rats was a reference to me. Then it seems to offer to take me out of the city, so I try to talk with it. Its words make little sense to me, though, and a vague memory of something unpleasant begins to stir in my mind.

In 1997 I moved to Hull to start a job, and used some of my spare time to familiarise myself with places where I could get books. One of the local establishments that sold new ones was Brown's Books, who had a sale not long after I first found them. Looking through the various reduced volumes, I came across a copy of Black Vein Prophecy, and remembered how intrigued I had been when looking through the book all those years ago. This was not the first time since drifting away from gamebooks that I'd come across a cheap one and decided to give it a go, nor was it the last such occasion before I finally got back into them for good. But it was the first time I bought a copy of BVP.

Moving closer to the creature reminds me that I know the magic that was used to combine horse and rider, and this recollection makes it possible for me to use the power of Mutation if I need it. Perhaps sensing this power within me, the horse-and-rider entity gallops away again, so I make for the sea wall. A number of war catapults are positioned next to it, and I wind up using one of them as a kind of ejector seat to get out of the city, having it fling me over the wall and into the sea. Another Luck roll determines how well this goes, and I manage to fail this one, but the damage done is just one Stamina point. But you have to lose a point of Luck every time you Test your Luck, regardless of outcome, so the probability of my failing when it's a matter of life or death rather than trivial damage has just significantly increased. I'm beginning to suspect that this book is as unplayable by the rules as Crypt of the Sorcerer and Chasms of Malice, though in terms of plot and quality of writing, it's a lot better than either of them.

A boat draws near, and I am dragged aboard by a woman, who is startled to find that I'm not the person she expected to find catapulting himself out of the city. She asks what happened to Thandile, and, assuming she means the man I found dead by my sarcophagus, I tell her about the body I found. For a moment she is clearly grief-stricken, but then she becomes businesslike and gets me to help her with the boat. The assistance she needs doesn't require any particular expertise, so I do all right, and after a while the woman, named as Velkos in the text despite not having given her name in any recorded dialogue, takes a nap. Some time later a strange sphere approaches the boat, and makes peculiar noises when I fend it off with a convenient length of wood.

Would a bargepole have made things easier for Patrick McGoohan?

Normally at this point I'd take a nap, as that leads to a Luck roll that, if successful, provides me with something that could be of use later on in the adventure. As I'm unlikely to last long enough for it to be a worthwhile acquisition, I'll try to stay awake and hang on to one of my few remaining points of Luck. Velkos wakes, so I chat with her to help keep myself awake. A bit of a tricky conversation, as she doesn't want to talk about herself, and I barely remember anything, but she does let on that she's been adventuring for some time, and gives me a lucky charm in the form of the claw of a Chestrap Beast that almost killed her once. It doesn't give me any Luck bonus, and didn't seem to give its former owner that much good fortune, so I have my doubts about its effectiveness.

We reach land, and Velkos leads me to a cave, where she discovers signs that enemies have been here. I decide not to go looking for trouble, so we head away, soon catching sight of a wood. Hearing horses approaching, we take cover, and watch as two armed men ride their horses into the trees. Velkos advises me to skirt the wood, but I am curious and, staying away from the main trail, sneak into the trees. Before long I catch sight of a man in armour, his helmet dented. He's blundering around, seemingly unable to see well, and I'm not too happy at only being able to choose between attacking him and evading him. I don't think ambushing a semi-incapacitated man is likely to do me many favours in the long term, so I let him stumble past.

Moving on, I come across the other armoured man, now identified by the text as a brigand, and obviously losing in combat against a skinny individual with neither armour nor weapons. In a voice more imposing than you'd expect from one with so slight a build, the little man identifies himself as Merzei, 'Defender of the People, Righter of Wrongs, and future Grand Councillor of these Isles.' Even if I didn't know from previous attempts at the book that he makes a good ally, I'd be reluctant to attack as proficient a fighter as he must be, so I just greet him. Well, I would if he'd let me speak, but he just yells the Titan equivalent of Marxist dogma at me for several minutes, pretty much declaring that my sort will be the first against the wall come the glorious revolution, and then heads off in search of other bystanders to harangue.

I also leave the woods. Velkos rejoins me and asks what happened, and I explain as best I can. We reach a hilly region, and Velkos shows me a cave reputed to contain a great treasure. I sense movement close by, and a moment later a pair of two-tailed simian creatures rush in our direction, followed by foreigners with whips and nets. The creatures make for the cave, seemingly unaware that more men with nets are on the cliff above the cave entrance. I attack the slavers, killing a couple of them, but more approach. The only alternative to getting hopelessly outnumbered is to flee into the cave, so I risk that, dodging a net on my way in. Velkos dashes down a tunnel, following the creatures, which I suddenly remember to be called Cressents.

The first time I played this book, I got into a particularly nasty fight while wandering the streets of the ruined city. Narrowly surviving, I subsequently climbed down the rope into the hole that intermittently spouted water, and poor timing led to my getting caught in one of the waves that created the spouts, consequently drowning. Subsequent failures included having my throat cut, getting executed in a case of mistaken identity, and being pushed off a cliff by Velkos. After five or six tries I still had no idea what I was supposed to be doing, and rather lost interest. The book went to a charity shop, and I went off gamebooks again for a while longer.

Velkos and the Cressents outpace me, and by the time I reach a fork in the tunnel, I have no idea which way they went. Smoke drifting after me suggests that the slavers are trying to gas us. I take the branch that heads up: if the smoke is heavier than air, I'll be safe, and if it's lighter, it might escape through cracks in the ceiling before it can affect me.

The tunnel leads to the treasure Velkos mentioned - a heap of gemstones, plus mounds of nuts, berries and leaves. Presumably the Cressents hoard food and shiny things. Regrettably, the smoke appears to be lighter than air, and billows after me, so now would not be a good time to loiter and grab some loot. I hurry away while I still can, encountering Velkos again. She leads me on, and advises me to ignore the side turning from which the shrieks of Cressent young can be heard.

Thandile's silver-furred pet didn't make it out of my tomb alive. This is not some Hollywood blockbuster where cute animals are guaranteed survival. I doubt that an attempted rescue of the Cressents will go well, and stick with Velkos. We emerge from the caves to find a fiery Elemental causing havoc and destruction. Velkos is incinerated, and I am attacked by a slave trader with an ominous-looking black sword. Luckily for me, he's not even as adequate a fighter as I am, and doesn't manage to hit me often enough for the sword to enslave me or poison me or suck out my soul or whatever it would do if it struck me a couple more times.

No, the poison does have an effect (and would do even if he'd never hit me, which is a bit rough), but I get away with only a mild Skill penalty. I rest to regain some strength, then continue on my way, reaching a more developed area. The fields show signs of neglect, and a couple of peasants in a muddy field call for help. If I'd failed that first Luck roll I might be in a position to offer assistance. As it is, trying would just lead to more bother than is worth experiencing.

Up ahead is a settlement. Black-dyed clothes bearing vaguely familiar emblems are strewn across the road. Searching for their owner, I find a helmeted man tied up in a patch of gorse, a scroll jammed into the mouth of the helmet. I suspect that this is some of Merzei's handiwork, and decide not to get involved.

Continuing on to the settlement, I find it to be in a pretty poor state. The adults are drunkards, and foul-mouthed children chase each other with wooden swords. The only shops I can see sell weapons. Travellers are huddled around a fire in the ruins of a cottage. I head for the local ale-house, finding the entrance-hall to be littered with heaps of dirty clothes, the floor wet. A youth offers to take and clean my clothes, and I only realise that he's a con artist when I step from the hall into the next room, where patrons' clothes are hung neatly on hooks. He's already run off, though, so I advance into the cloud of steam that fills the centre of the room - and fall into the pool of warm water that's giving off the steam.

The local ale-house is also a communal bath, full of people from a variety of regions. I talk to one of them, who mentions a war in the south, and brings up the rumour that one of Feior's men is coming to look for men to train the troops. He also indicates that he's a slave trader, and before I can comment, the door bursts open. In comes Merzei, who shouts abuse at the bathers, waving a scroll, and demanding to know if anyone here will join him and fight for justice. Despite the way our previous meeting went, I climb out and accept the challenge. He throws me a dagger as the angry bathers advance on us.

Of the four types of magic I have the option of using here, three remain unknown to me, and I remember things getting quite unpleasant the time I tried using Mutation here, so I'll see if a straight fight goes any better. Well, it pits me against two inferior opponents rather than a powerful hybrid, so I think that was the right choice. I still take a couple of wounds, but I'm sure a conjoined mass of undesirables would have done me more harm.

I then leave the ale-house, grabbing one of those bundles of dirty clothes on the way, as I'll need something to wear outside. One of the pockets contains what appears to be some kind of wind instrument on a string, which the text identifies as a Chang whistle.

Not far away is a black carriage, its driver sleeping on top. I move closer, spotting that all sorts of runes and emblems have been carved on it. The driver wakes and seems afraid of me. Hurriedly he opens the door, and a man steps out. The passenger heaps abuse on the driver for bothering him with a 'filthy peasant', threatens to attack me, and then breaks off, bows, and addresses me as 'Your Highness'. He introduces himself as Commander Tamroth, and asks some questions to try and establish what has left me in this state, and I improvise a tale of a bandit ambush. While not entirely convinced, he invites me into the carriage, and we depart.

I deflect Tamroth's further questions about the bandits until he changes the topic. Spreading a battle plan on the floor, he asks about strategy. If I answer, I'll reveal myself to be an impostor and come up against that potentially lethal Test your Luck, and right now I'd only have a 1 in 6 chance of surviving. It had been my intention to take that chance, but it's just occurred to me that I've never actually tried abandoning my pretense and making a break for it, and as I can't win anyway, I might as well see if that's a better way out of the situation. It is! I pull Tamroth's hood over his eyes (the illustration showed him to be bare-headed), grab the map, and leap out of the carriage, a convenient bush breaking my fall. Well, this book might not be quite so unfair after all - for years I was sure the only way to get the map was to survive Tamroth's attack. So this doomed attempt at the book has proved worthwhile.

Moving away before Tamroth can come after me, I reach the edge of a gorge. Men are abseiling down the cliff, and I decide to investigate. Watching from behind a tree stump, I see two men guarding the ropes. Then I spot that the stump is hollow, and the hole goes down into the ground, so I enter the tunnel. It leads to a cave where I disturb some birds, and the patterns formed by their beating wings trigger another memory, reminding me that I can use the power of Harmonization.

A few years after getting rid of my first BVP, I visited friends in Swansea for a few days. While they were at work one morning, I went for a wander around the local charity shops, and in one of the more out-of-the-way ones in Sketty (the same one where I would subsequently find a copy of the first Fatemaster book) I came across another Black Vein Prophecy. Remembering that I never had managed to complete it (but not recalling why I'd given up on it), I bought that copy. And I still had it when I properly got back into gamebooks in December 2001, so this is one of the few FF books I own that I've had for longer than 12 years.

The bandits I saw climbing down the ropes are also in the cave, entranced by the birds. Unwilling to kill defenceless men, even if they are bandits, I leave by a tunnel that leads to a candle-lit cave. An old man stands there, and he tells me that my name is Maior, and he is Credas. He says he can teach me to use my power, and suggests that together we can compel the bandits to leave the cave without anyone coming to harm. That seems like a good plan to me, so I assist him.

Once we're alone, Credas says I must complete a quest for him before he can help me. He wants me to go south to the Zushan Jungle and fetch the Sitting Prophet, and gives me a jar of orange syrup to sustain me in times of need. I leave via the tree stump exit and head south. After a day, I reach a river, which runs into the jungle, so I follow it in there. Before long the vegetation on the bank is so thick as to impede my way, but there's a boat moored nearby, so I 'borrow' that.

There's actually no need to be so coy about taking the boat, as I have to clean out the horrifically savaged remains of its owner before I can get into it. I then let the current take me, becoming a little nervous as I hear the sound of rapids up ahead. Not that I have any real reason to worry about the rapids, as I'm liable to be devoured by the mass of frenzied eels up ahead before I get to the white water. Or I would be if I didn't have the Chang whistle, which somehow pacifies the eels when I whirl it around my head on the string to produce a note.

Further on, the water becomes sluggish, and I reach a spot where I could potentially continue on foot. Mooring the boat to a tree-stump, I rest for a while, finding some edible fruit and a clay figurine. Taking some of the fruit to the boat, I find the mooring rope swarming with little red beetles. Disposing of them, I secure the boat somewhere safer and set off into the jungle. After a while, a vine sticks to me and yanks me off the ground. It's no vine, of course, but part of a Hac-quel-rat, which dribbles something toxic-looking down the vine towards me. I manage to break free and leap for a real vine - which can't support my weight, so I fall to the ground. Preferable to getting eaten, though.

I carry on into the jungle. A 'guard' such as the Hac-quel-rat may well be 'protecting' something important. But no, it was actually there to serve as a not-automatically-lethal warning that this is not the sort of place I should be exploring. I didn't get the message, and so I wind up getting lost and falling prey to one of the many hazards that infest the jungle.

At least I now know better than to go wandering off into the jungle there again. If I'd stayed in the boat, I'd only have wound up dead a short time later owing to my lack of a certain magical power, so that lethal detour didn't really cost me anything, just ensured that I won't make that mistake on a subsequent attempt and waste a character who might have a chance of winning.

A flawed book, for sure, but interesting, and I'll take that over a more playable but bland one any day.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

So How Do We Communicate, Hmm? Telepathy?

The mini-adventure in the Mongoose edition of Castle Death, the seventh Lone Wolf book, is Nick Robinson's The All Seeing One, in which I play Tavig, a doomed warrior whom Lone Wolf may encounter during the main adventure. Slavers have kidnapped my sister, and in response I've done a rather silly thing, travelling a great distance to try and raise money for my sister's ransom by undertaking a hazardous mission for the Elder Magi. All the evidence suggests that if I'd become a one-man army, taking down her captors one by one, with a weak joke to accompany each successive villain's death, I'd have been in with a good chance of success. There's a reason you don't get many blockbuster movies where the hero infiltrates the fortress of a generic bad guy against whom he has no particular grudge and tries to kill him in return for a reward with which to pay off the kidnappers.

After (predictably) failing in the assassination attempt, I was thrown into the Deathtrap Dungeon-esque maze beneath the castle. I then escaped, only to run into a load of Beastmen who rendered me semi-conscious. They discuss what to do with me, choosing not to return me to the maze because I'm in too bad a condition to be entertaining, and eventually one of them convinces the rest that they should feed me to his pet. This pet lives in a pit, and the background text ends with my being dropped into that pit and blacking out as I fall.

Though this takes place before the main adventure, it's obviously supposed to be played afterwards, as some of the Beastmen's dialogue makes little sense without information provided in Castle Death. The fortress is surrounded by a magical shield that keeps its occupants from coming out to cause trouble in the surrounding regions. It's impossible to get through the shield (in either direction) without a magically charged jewel known as a Power-key, and based on what the Beastmen say, their master is building up a collection of Power-keys taken from losers like me in order to equip some of his other minions for an assault on the towers that generate the shield. I hope this is relevant to the plot of the mini-adventure, rather than just more of the 'HEY, DID YOU SPOT MY SUBTLE CONTINUITY REFERENCE THERE?' nonsense that helped make the previous mini-adventure so tiresome.

The TASO-specific rules concentrate on the special skills available to Tavig. Generation of stats just follows the normal rules, and there's nothing to say that I start with a reduced Endurance on account of being almost incapacitated and possibly having a fractured skull, so it would appear that despite being almost comatose even before getting dumped into the pit, I have
Combat Skill: 12
Endurance: 20
Skills: Tough as Nails, Wall Climber, Danger Sense
No starting equipment, as everything I had (bar my clothing) was taken from me when I was captured. I'll wait and see how the rule forbidding the acquisition of certain items until I find a Backpack is implemented before criticising it.

I come round in the pit, in considerable pain, and discover that The Thing In The Pit broke my fall, and was crushed to death in the process. The text acknowledges how massively implausible this is, which doesn't actually make it any less so. Picking myself up, I resolve to escape and thwart the plan to destroy the shield generators. The Beastmen referred to an 'All Seeing One' just before they started talking about that plan, leading me to the conclusion that The All Seeing One is a major player in that plan, so I decide to focus on dealing with him/her/it.

There are two passages leading out of the pit, so I'll look into at least one of them before attempting to find out if the Wall Climber Skill works on pit walls as well as castle walls. Choosing the more narrow of the exits, I see indications that The Thing In The Pit repeatedly tried and failed to get through it. Being smaller, I have no such trouble, and get to a fork in the passage. The branch that goes up looks like the more sensible choice (especially as the other one is described as being steep), so I start to ascend.

After a while I reach a door. It leads into an empty room, and the door locks behind me. Part of the room opens onto the pit into which I was thrown, and there's a second door in the far wall. I hear something approaching the new door from the other side. An illustration of this room would help me make sense of one of the options here, since I'm not sure how I could 'crouch down below the low wall which surrounds the pit' to hide from whoever is approaching. To hide from someone in the pit, or in a separate room that also overlooks the pit, sure, but to be screened from whoever's approaching the door, I'd need to be on the other side of the wall, and thus not so much crouching as falling down.

I'll go for the alternative: hiding behind the door, ready to attack if noticed. Except that my interpretation of hiding is at odds with the author's, as I inferred that I'd use at least a modicum of common sense and only start a fight if I were reasonably confident of the outcome or left with no alternative, whereas the text has me automatically attack the Beastman that steps through. Lone Wolf adventures sometimes handle the element of surprise by stating that the surprised party does no damage or fights at a reduced Combat Skill for the first round or two. Not this one. My ambush gives me no advantage, and between my low Combat Skill, my lack of a weapon, and a particularly bad 'roll' in the first round, I get killed on the spot.

Well, if I'd understood what that choice actually entailed (or been able to make sense of the alternative), I might have chosen differently. But the author didn't make things sufficiently clear, so it's game over. If I ever work up the motivation to try TASO again, I think I'll just avoid that path altogether in the hope that that's the only part where Mr. Robinson makes things quite so impressively unclear.