Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Sorry, I Was a Bit Slow

I was all set to have a go at the next official Tunnels & Trolls solo adventure when I rolled up a character who's not really suited to it (or to the subsequent one, for that matter). But in many regards this is one of the best T&T characters I've ever generated, so rather than waste them, I've decided to put them through one of the unofficial solos I own. Andy Holmes' The Halls of the Gorgon is for first-level characters (and has a sequel that I also own), so I'm going to try that one. It's one of several that I bought from the author's eBay store, though he didn't sign this one like he did a couple of the others.

Anyway, here's the character in question.
Strength: 12
Intelligence: 10
Luck: 13
Constitution: 16
Dexterity: 14
Charisma: 15
Speed: 6
All right, so Speed is pretty abysmal, but it's only been mentioned in about two of the twenty-seven adventures I've played to date, so I'm not too fussed about that. Starting gold was also low, but enough for clothes, a short sword and a shield, and what more does a young warrior need?

I've decided to explore the Halls of Ogul-Duhr, which used to be occupied by Dwarves, but were abandoned some time ago. Rumour has it that there's a lot of treasure still in them, though. And, as can be inferred from the title, a Gorgon has taken up residence there. Pity I couldn't afford a mirror, really.

I find the cave leading into the Halls, which is partially blocked by a statue of a warrior. A victim of the Gorgon, I presume. One failed Luck roll later, I hear something approaching, and decide to hide in case the something in question is hostile.

I do not believe it. To hide, I have to succeed at a Saving Roll against Speed. Unsurprisingly, I fail. And the something is hostile. In fact it's the Gorgon, which catches me off-guard and doubles the number of statues in the vicinity of the cave mouth. If I hadn't tried to hide, it would have been another Luck roll instead, with success and failure leading to the same sections as for the Speed roll. And, my Luck being so much higher than my Speed, what I just rolled would have been enough to succeed at the Luck roll. But if I'm not prepared to accept the adverse consequences of my decisions, there's no point in playing gamebooks, so that's another rapid failure for the list.

Well, The Halls of the Gorgon might not be an official Flying Buffalo release, but it shares with around half of them the quality of being able to kill off characters at a very early stage.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Subconscious Prejudice - a Way of Life

My original acquisition of a copy of the Fighting Fantasy book Black Vein Prophecy prompted a sporadic period of second-hand gamebook acquisition. It was during this phase that a browsing expedition to East Hull proved fruitful. In one of the charity shops along Holderness Road (probably the no longer extant Salvation Army one), I came across a copy of one of the Virtual Reality Adventures for not very much, so I bought it and played it a few times before that phase passed and I gave the gamebooks away.

I wasn't as discerning back then as I am now, otherwise I doubt that I'd have ever bothered with VRA when I properly got back into gamebooks. Because my first (and for several years only) encounter with the series was Mark Smith's The Coils of Hate, which is (to put it mildly) not a particularly good book. Despite its being 'the way [Smith] wanted it', according to the man who wrote the good VRAs. But if I were to avoid writing posts on gamebooks just because the books weren't very good, this blog would be a lot shorter, so it's time I was having another go at Coils.

The primary setting of this adventure is Godorno, the misanthropy-inducing dump that the hero of Green Blood, Mr. Smith's previous Virtual Reality Adventure, left at the start of that book's prologue. It's possible that this is on Orb, the setting of the The Way of the Tiger books Mr. Smith wrote along with Jamie Thomson, the same authors' Fighting Fantasy adventure Talisman of Death, and a sequence in one of their Falcon books. Well, that's the most likely explanation for its featuring an appearance by the annoying Tyutchev, a native of Orb who appears in a few of the aforementioned books. Then again, as far as I'm aware, none of the explicitly Orb-based books mention any of the major locations of Smith's VRAs, and while taking a quick peek at the Tyutchev encounter for clarification, I saw a reference to Aleppo (which is in Syria!), so I should leave figuring out the geography to somebody who cares.

My character is one of the Judain, a monumentally unsubtle fantasy version of Diaspora Jews. While there is no guarantee that all of the pre-generated character types listed at the start of the book have a shot at winning (well, there were a few 'cannot hope to win' character types in Green Blood), I might as well start with a character designed by the writer. I go for the Schnorer, who's essentially a streetwise rogue.

I leave my hovel, not intending to return, and as I set off along the street, a youth yells abuse at me and spits in my eye. I ignore the insult, so he tries to knife me, and I use my Unarmed Combat Skill to disarm him. Continuing on my way, I take his knife with me, apparently to prevent him from using it on any of my fellows, though given the way gamebooks go, I'll probably wind up stabbing somebody or something with it before long.

My wanderings bring me to Greenbark Plaza, just in time to hear the town crier make an proclamation. Taxes are up. A man close by in the crowd seeks solidarity with me in objecting to this. But the town crier has not yet finished. While he doesn't phrase it the way I'm about to, the upshot of the remainder of the announcement is that, in order to channel the inevitable public outrage away from those in charge, anyone who doesn't follow the state-approved religion is officially scapegoated. Especially the Judain.

The man who, moments before, shared his disapproval of the tax increase with me, now gets like Donald Sutherland at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The Cunning Skill has me grab a convenient member of the nobility as a human shield, though I let her go (with an apology, even) as soon as I'm out of the thick of the crowd and in a position to run for it.

Before long, the crowd pursuing me has grown, and some of the Overlord's cavalry join in. Up ahead, there's a horse tethered outside a drinking house. I try to make my escape on the horse, but it throws me, and by the time I've recovered my wits, the soldiers have caught up with me, and skewer me.

That was quicker than expected. Anyone wishing to know about some of the 'fun' I didn't reach in this attempt at the book might like to check out Per Jorner's painfully thorough review of Coils, which is a good deal more entertaining (and may well have had more thought and effort put into it) than the book itself.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

There Are Worlds Out There...

When describing how I first experienced The Keep of the Lich-Lord, I mentioned that it was one of a couple of new-to-me FF books that I found in the charity shop. When I made up my mind to buy Keep, I also decided to get the other one. Which was Peter Darvill-Evans' Spectral Stalkers. Given that I played Keep twice, and then was done with it, while Stalkers took closer to a dozen attempts, I think I got better value for money from the latter.

Despite my having failed the book a lot more than I did Keep, I wouldn't describe it as unduly harsh. Indeed, it's one of the last Puffin Fighting Fantasy books that can plausibly be won even if you have low stats. The first of my many defeats was a bit arbitrary - I tried to descend a staircase that turned out to be an illusion hiding a crevasse - but the others resulted from my taking unnecessary risks, failure to pay sufficient attention to the text, or just plain bad luck.

In fact, one of the most common complaints made about Stalkers is that it's too easy, with one route to victory that's only something like 10 sections long. While it is true that the book contains an unusually direct route to the endgame, the chances of surviving on that path are negligible unless you're using dice that always roll ones. Besides, there's so much to explore (and hardly any of the 'take the wrong turning and you cannot win' stuff found in so many FF books), taking the short and high-risk route is missing out. You could probably make a trip to the National History Museum last under a minute if you headed straight for the exit once you were inside, but that doesn't make it a rubbish museum.

Anyway, it's about time I got on with the adventure. In view of the book's fairness even to the low-of-stat, I shall be making character creation fully random. I end up with:
Skill 11
Stamina 19
Luck 11
A character who'd have a fair chance in some of the harsher books. But going with the randomness means accepting the better-than-strictly-necessary as well as the sub-par.

As usual, I'm an adventurer by profession. At the start of the adventure, I'm consulting a fairground fortune-teller (and regretting having done so). The interpretation of the cards is nothing that wouldn't be obvious given my line of work (treasure, travel and danger), but then the fortune-teller turns over a card that isn't part of the deck (the cynical might assume that, observing my dissatisfaction with the reading so far, the fortune-teller has switched to the 'that card shouldn't even be there' routine to put me off demanding a refund), which leads him to predict that I'm soon going to be departing the world (not in the sense of dying, but some unorthodox means of travel). Not wishing to get involved, he urges me to go away, warning of an impending storm. Which could just be a weather forecast, considering the look of the sky when I leave the tent, but I wouldn't count on it.

Seeking shelter in a nearby forest, I see a flash that turns out not to be lightning, and a badly wounded winged being that looks like nothing I've seen before falls out of the sky just in front of me. Before dying, the creature tells me to take its burden, makes an unhelpfully vague reference to Archmage Globus, and warns me to beware the Spectral Stalkers. I take the 'burden', which is spherical and wrapped in cloth, and unwrap it to see if this is the sort of thing I want to be carting around.

It's a glowing sphere, slightly larger than my fist, and while it initially appears transparent, upon closer inspection I find that it's full of stars. And worlds, and people, and animals, and things I can't give a name. And me. Yes, for a moment I am among the sphere's contents, and then it's just resting in my hand again. But I'm not in Khul anymore. I'm in a library of positively Borgesian proportions, right next to a desk with a bell and a sign saying 'ENQUIRIES' on it. There's also a sign saying 'SILENCE!', but I ring the bell anyway.

A bespectacled Dragon pops up from behind the desk, asks what I want, and tells me that this is the Library in Limbo and they'll have no trouble here. I ask if she can tell me anything about the sphere, which has gone dull and cloudy, and she says it looks as if it doesn't belong here. She advises me to take it to Wayland the Artefacts Specialist, warning me that he's a bit of a prankster and I'd be advised not to touch his door knocker.

I follow her directions for several hours, eventually reaching Wayland's door. Disregarding the sign that says to knock and wait, I step through, and the bucket of water that was propped on top of the door falls on me. Wayland is highly amused, and asks where I'm from. Suppressing the urge to respond to his joke with a literally side-splitting bit of swordplay, I tell him, and he offers me a drink to dry me out. I warily accept, and find that the liquid in the bottle somehow removes all excess moisture from my exterior. Retaining the bottle in case it should come in handy at a later date, I sit down as directed (narrowly avoiding taking a seat on the Automatic Impaler - wonder if it sticks seven swords into anyone unfortunate enough to sit on it) and show Wayland the sphere.

He immediately identifies it as the Aleph, which contains everything. Except for Limbo and its contents. He agrees with the Dragon's assertion that it shouldn't be here, mentions that it's been sought by wise men since the birth of the universe, and asks how I got hold of it. I explain, and he advises me to use the Aleph to travel, never staying in any one place for long in order to keep ahead of the Stalkers. He also recommends collecting any signs and portents I find, all of which will be round, and suggests that the Sage Semeion Cryptoglyphos could probably tell me more. Then he shows me to the exit.

The way out leads through a corridor occupied by a curmudgeonly Dwarf who guards a room full of empty hatstands. He tells me that the door at the far end leads from Nowhere to Somewhere, and precisely where it takes me can be influenced by what I think about as I step through. Remembering Wayland's advice, I concentrate on the Aleph...

Then I'm in a dark and narrow passage. The sound of chanting voices is audible, and I wind up moving towards it, eventually falling down a chute that ends on a rune-inscribed dais. The wall behind me is carved to look like a skull, the mouth of the chute forming the skull's mouth, and a skull-faced priest announces to the surrounding warriors that their deity has provided the sacrifice to be slain at the end of the coming battle. Not the best welcome I've ever received.

Knowing from past attempts at the book that there's little to be gained by trying to escape or fight, I make no struggle when a couple of soldiers ascend the dais to capture me. Despite my lack of resistance, one of them knocks me out with a blow to the head (which, oddly, does less Stamina damage than Wayland's bucket, and apparently knocks awareness of the priest's name - Syzuk - into me).

When I come round, I'm lying in the back of Syzuk's war-chariot. His army is prevailing against his enemies, but then a lone Elven archer manages to shoot Syzuk. Only in the shoulder, but something about the Elven crafting makes the arrow poisonous to the priest. He falls down beside me and begs for me to help him, so I put an end to his suffering. Without him to steer the chariot, it goes out of control, and the surviving Elves are unable to do anything about it, as it's been fitted with Elf-repellent hubcaps. Eventually the chariot hits a boulder, losing a wheel and throwing me to the ground. I grab the hubcap because it's round, decide that it's time I was elsewhere, and take out the Aleph to see where it will transport me next.

From this point onwards, travel by Aleph will be randomised. Which adds that bit more variety to each fresh attempt at the book (there were two locations that I never managed to reach in all my attempts at the book back in the nineties), but also makes it much trickier to acquire specific items. Good thing none bar the Aleph are essential, though some are very useful in certain circumstances.

As it turns out, I wind up back home - sort of. It's definitely Khul, and a part of the continent with which I am familiar, but pretty much everything is in much worse condition than it was the last time I came this way. The stone bridge across the River Gibelvatter has been destroyed, and a fortress-like inn constructed on the remnants. Outside the inn stands a man, who draws his sword as I approach.

I indicate that I have no hostile intent, and he welcomes me to the Inn of the Ghostly Visitors, hastening to reassure me that the establishment's name is just a joke, inspired by the not-remotely-true-honest-guv rumours that patrons sometimes go missing during the night. He also points out that this is the only shelter for miles, and there's no ferry until morning, so I should spend the night in the room he has ready for me. Though not keen on his tone, I choose to take the room anyway. It has a balcony overlooking the river, and a meal has already been laid out for me. I opt not to taste it in case it has extra ingredients designed to facilitate one of those disappearances that don't happen, and turn in for the night.

It's still dark when I wake with a start and spot a pair of eyes gleaming in the middle of the floor. I leap to the attack, realising as I do that this 'manifestation' is actually a Goblin trying to sneak into my room through a trapdoor. As I slam the trapdoor on his head, he drops his knife, which falls on the floor. For a while I stand on the trapdoor, and eventually the Goblins below conclude that they're not going to be able to get in, and row away. I take a look at the knife, which has a silver blade, and decide to keep it.

When it gets light again, I leave my room. The inn is deserted, and I search it, finding the innkeeper's licence. Which is dated four hundred years after my time, indicating that the Aleph doesn't just transport me through space. And that in any Titan-based gamebook set less than four centuries after my character's current day, failure can't mean the end of the world. Probably. As I leave the inn, its sign falls down, and I narrowly miss a third blow to the head. The sign is circular, so I add it to my collection and, wanting to avoid spoilers for the next few month's FF-based posts to this blog, get out the Aleph again.

I am transported to a landscape of sand dunes. There's a village by a pool of water not too far away, so I head there. The marketplace is almost deserted, with only one stall open. This sells clay replica candles that give off light - sort of like a coal fire-effect electric heater, only not so tacky. The stallholder pleads with me to buy one, saying that they're the village's only resource since Mayrek the Potter went missing and everyone who went looking for him failed to return. I do my part to support local tradespersons, and also decide to investigate these disappearances. Perhaps Mayrek and the vanished villagers are just having a really big party, and don't want the people who haven't been invited to find out.

The remaining villagers give me directions to Mayrek's cave, which has been virtually walled up with boulders, and is guarded by a massive Clay Golem. Probably not a party, then. Unless the Golem's a bouncer. In case that's what's going on, and it should happen to be a bring-a-bottle do, I get out the Siccator and offer the Golem a substantial draught. Well, I throw it over him, but considering how rowdy some parties get, it's not necessarily inappropriate behaviour. Evidently the Golem can't handle its drink, as it promptly goes to pieces.

Mayrek tells me that the Golem was an experiment that went wrong and turned on him, and to thank me for rescuing him, says I can have any one item from his workshop. The porcelain box of money has obvious appeal, but there's also a clay sphere, which would go nicely with the other round objects in my backpack, so I choose that. Mayrek tells me that it contains pure life-force, which will protect me from life-draining attacks. It rattles, prompting me to speculate that it might be a pressurised container, so I don't break it open to find out.

The Aleph takes me to a stage that's mounted on a wagon, on which a Conjuror is mid-performance. Being a slick operator, he claims that my sudden appearance is part of his act. He's also made the Baron's daughter disappear, which is quite a trick, as she was in her father's coach rather than on stage. Perhaps fearful that I'll deny being part of the act, the Conjurer instructs his assistant Felice (who's dressed as a cat) to take me backstage. As Felice leads me away, I realise that she's not wearing a costume - she's actually part cat. Curious, I accompany her backstage, and hear the Conjuror giving her instructions. There's something dodgy afoot, as he plans to distract the crowd until she can get the wagon moving. For now I let Felice push me into the back room, hoping to find out more about what's afoot.

The back room is cluttered with props from the Conjuror's act. Including a cage, with the Baron's daughter in it. Contrary to what the Conjuror told the Baron, she hasn't been returned to her father's coach by the time Felice gets the show on the road. The cage is locked, the Conjurer has the key, and the Baron's daughter suspects that her captor will soon be coming to check on his prisoner. Prisoners.

Unwilling to abandon the young woman to her abductor, I await his arrival. He soon enters, revealing himself to be a Vampire, and gloats about having not only secured a fresh undead bride-to-be, but also having got himself a snack for the journey home. I tell him that he should have checked the ingredients first, as he missed the 'May contain silver' warning. Attacking with the Goblin's knife, I win the fight without difficulty. His spirit flees in bat form, while his body disintegrates into a mound of dust with a key in it. I unlock the cage, ignore the Baron's daughter's demands that I fight Felice as well, and leap from the wagon, pulling the Baron's daughter with me. She complains about my having denied her the excitement of a trip to the Conjuror's castle (did she not pick up on the Vampire thing, or has she just been reading too many Twilight books?) and angrily stomps back home. I discover that I inadvertently grabbed one of the Conjuror's calling-cards, which are not rectangular. but - you guessed it - circular, so I pocket that before letting the Aleph take me somewhere more sensible.

I'm in a park. A nice, tranquil, grassy area with spinneys of trees and rolling hills. Well, tranquil until assorted woodland animals, conventional and folkloric, burst from the trees and flee past me. Funnily enough, the silence persists even as the badgers, bears, centaurs, rabbits, deer, satyrs and so on surge past me. Nor is there any sound as their pursuers, armoured giants riding bizarre war-beasts, gallop from the woods. I decide to try and attract the riders' attention and, as this world seems to have no sound, that means stepping out in front of them and waving my arms. They either don't notice or don't care about me, and I doubt that a silent trampling is going to be any less harmful than the more conventional bone-breaking variety, so I try to grab onto the saddle of the first one and have it carry me away from the immediate threat. I succeed, and continue to fail to attract the giants' attention, so no attempt is made at dislodging me.

Hanging close by is a hunting-horn, which seems a little incongruous in a soundless world. As the riders spread out, I grab the horn and leap from the saddle, making a safe landing. Curious, I try blowing the horn. It makes a noise. I stop blowing, but the horn gets louder. Now the giants and their steeds notice me. This pleases their prey, as the hunt is at least interrupted, but the hunters are less happy. So am I, as it occurs to me that this commotion might attract the attention of the Stalkers.

The giants fade away, the park goes dark, and I find myself in a cave, in the centre of a circle of fires, next to an old woman. I ask her what the [horn FX] just happened. She tells me she's an Oracle, indicates some degree of awareness of my situation, and offers to explain the recent weirdness for 2 Gold Pieces. Though uncertain that my money will be legal tender here, I hand over a couple of coins, and the Oracle explains that I was just in someone else's dream. And no ordinary someone else, either: that was the dream of a god of hunting. She suggests that the horn (which accompanied me out of the dream - an item being brought from a dream into the real world is no more odd than a person physically travelling into a stranger's dream) might deter some enemies, and also hints that the nearby market might have something round for sale. She's right: one of the stalls has a bronze plate among its stock, engraved with a picture of the dream-hunt I interrupted. I am not depicted, which is a good thing, as this stop on my multiversal trip has been strange enough already.

Next the Aleph takes me to a forest. There's a road running through it, and as I make my way to that road, I see a Minstrel with a harp walking along it. A boar-faced creature on a bipedal lizard approaches from the other direction, and is about to attack the Minstrel when he pulls out the harp, which plays music that has a tranquilising effect on the rider. That's not sloppy grammar in the previous sentence: the harp produces the tune without any input from the Minstrel. He's about to stab his now defenceless would-be attacker when a similar being approaches on the same kind of steed, and a third can be heard drawing near.

I ought not to get involved. But I intervene anyway, for the sake of a more interesting encounter. I defend the Minstrel from the second rider, and he kills the first one. At this point the second one decides to retreat, and the third arrives, sees the situation, and opts to flee. Neither of them gets away, though, as the Minstrel uses the harp to compel them back here, then kills them. Not a very nice chap. He indicates that he's disguised, and is actually a Zwinian like the three he just murdered. Claiming to be their rightful ruler, and currently seeking to reclaim his throne from an usurper, he invites me to assist him, and gives the harp a strum that shows it to have some effect on me. Attempting to run off, or openly opposing him, is not likely to go well, so I agree to accompany him.

We continue along the road to a citadel, where the Minstrel uses the harp to make easy prey of the guards on the gate. Definitely not someone I should be helping take the throne, but by now I'd do better to stick with him and seek an opportunity to spoil his plans than attempt escape. Inside the citadel, the people are celebrating, and the Minstrel tells me that it's seven years to the day since he was banished. Before long we reach the heart of the Citadel, and confront Frampa, the 'usurper'. He remembers that the seers warned of a Minstrel, but this recollection comes too late to help, as the Minstrel uses the harp to control the Zwinians.

'You are beginning to find the situation threatening.' Nope, I've been finding it threatening for some time. But now I have a chance to do something worthwhile about it, and knock the harp out of the Minstrel's hands. As its influence begins to fade from the Zwinians, the Minstrel's disguise fades and he attacks me. Before long, the citadel guards subdue him and, not sure what to make of me, Frampa orders me to leave and take the harp with me.

Back outside the citadel, I decide to leave the harp behind, and am about to use the Aleph when the harp speaks, claiming to be the spirit of the Minstrel Cerod, who was a victim of the disguised Zwinian himself. It offers to help me and, while I don't particularly need the sort of help it gave the Zwinian, I'm far from happy at the thought of it offering its services to whoever next comes this way, so I take the harp with me in the hope of finding somewhere safe I can leave it.

The Aleph takes me to a high-tech setting, where a humanoid with mechanical adornments (not entirely unlike Davros) drives up to me in a cart and urges me to step out of the machine in which I've arrived. I do so, and my host introduces himself as Metron the Mapmaker. He shows me his collection of globes, speaks disparagingly of those who believe worlds can be any other shape, and asks if I have anything for him to measure.

I know from past attempts at the book that if I do let him measure anything, it will lose all its magical properties. There may be some kind of comment on scientific rationalism intended here, though I'm not sure whether it would be pro or anti in tone. Regardless, while this would be one way of rendering the harp harmless, I think that killing it in this way would be a bit harsh, so I politely deny Metron the opportunity to get his mechanical mitts on any of my possessions. He mocks my 'superstitious' ways, but offers to sell me a globe of Titan, and I take the opportunity of gaining another round item. Besides, the only alternative to making the purchase is attacking him, which would be unwise (making this encounter a bit harsh on anyone who lost their money on another world). Metron gives me a pencil and some paper as well, in case I ever need to make a map. Then he wants me gone, so I get out the Aleph again.

For a change, where I end up next is determined by what's going on in my mind, rather than the roll of a die. Somehow the Aleph picks up on my metatextual awareness that for the first time in all my years of playing this book, I'm in with a shot at getting a complete set of signs and portents, and brings me to a path at the side of a gorge, which leads to a sinister-looking fortress. The castle appears derelict, but flickering lights briefly show me the silhouette of a child on the battlements, and a scream rings out. Time to go exploring.

Entering a long-abandoned hall, I hear voices arguing about the Nursery Tower, followed by that scream again. This time I pick up on nuances suggesting that it's the scream of somebody falling into the gorge. The subsequent silence is more perturbing than the scream was. Reconsidering staying here, I see a man and a woman between me and the way I came in. Probably ghosts, and as I have no idea of their capabilities, I decide to head further into the castle instead. They pursue me for some time, and I wind up ascending a tower to what used to be a child's bedroom, judging by the clutter of toys there. The spectral couple stopped coming after me at about the time I began heading up into the tower, which could be interpreted as indicating that I'm where they want me. Still, it's getting dark, so I decide to spend the night here.

It's not as if anything creepy could be going on here, right?

Some rather evocative prose does a good job of making the toys seem sinister, from the watchful rocking-horse to the smirking ballerina doll to the clown in a glass ball that rocks from side to side... That clay candle makes everything look a lot less ominous, though. If I had no light source, things would get a good deal nastier - not necessarily fatal, but it is possible to wind up plummeting into the gorge. Makes me wonder whose scream I heard earlier...

Anyway, after a meal to make up for some of the damage I took on my travels (this is one of those books where you can only eat when told you can, making the rapid route to the end even more hazardous, what with the three-dice Stamina penalty incurred on it), I settle down for an untroubled night's sleep. In the morning I add the clown-in-ball to my collection, and then get out the Aleph again.

Mt frame of mind is still influencing where I go, and by now I could do with some answers. The Aleph takes me to the foot of a cliff, which has a massive portal hewn into it. A little exploration reveals my first impression to be wrong: I'm not at the foot, but on a big ledge. Etched onto a nearby boulder is a diagram of a horrendously twisty-turny maze, identified by a caption as the Seven Courtyards of Semeion Cryptoglyphos. Three verses inscribed beneath the maze explain that the path through the maze provides a key to a gate, and that most of the courtyards in it just contain danger.

With the paper and pencil I copy the diagram, which means that I'm allowed to refer to the illustration of the carving inside the front of the book while playing, rather than being on my honour to try and memorise the best path before I enter the maze. Even with the diagram (and knowledge of the twist subtly indicated in the poem), it could be a bit of a headache. Still, in I go...

Chimneys and fissures have been used to allow enough light into the maze for basic visibility, and a circle-on-triangle symbol has been carved into the portal's lintel. This symbol appears in other parts of the maze, making it that bit easier to specify directions without reference to a compass. The passage leads to a T-junction. I pick what I believe to be the optimal direction, and after trudging onwards for a long while, reach a courtyard, in which I am attacked by a flock of bats. I manage to evade them, though.

The exit I pick eventually brings me to a small chamber containing a boulder that glows and radiates heat. I can't stay here for long, but do have time to read the inscriptions above the exits. In essence, they say that while I can have the past and present clarified to me, the future will be determined by the choices I make, and thus cannot be predicted.

If I'm on track, I want to leave by the doorway opposite the one through which I entered. And if I was correct, then for almost two decades I've been wrong about the arbitrariness of the way my first character died. According to the map, I'm in a chamber with three exits. My eyes tell me that it has four ways out, and the one that doesn't match what the map depicts happens to be a stairway. So if that is the illusion that got my first Spectral Stalkers character killed (and I'm not about to check, since if I'm right I'd wind up dead again), then the map provides a hint that it's not real.

Again I take the exit opposite the one through which I came in, and after further plodding along passages, I reach a room that has a large bundle hanging from the ceiling. Disconcertingly, the bundle moans, and begins to move. Suspecting a trap, I don't loiter.

The passage takes me to a courtyard containing a fountain, carved in the shape of a Minotaur. I take a refreshing drink and, for what should be the last time if I've been reading the map right, pick an exit.

My wanderings bring me to a dead end. The floor feels unstable. So I check for secret doors, and find a carving. It looks a bit like a face, and is also a sort of maze, though without any dead ends (not really a labyrinth by the scholarly definition, as there's more than one path, but they all converge on the same couple of points, like a less convoluted version of Embankment station on the London Underground). Each of the 'eyes' is an indentation with a pressable button in it. One will allow me to reach the centre of the maze, the other won't. Remembering what the poems outside the maze said, I do a quick sketch of the route I've taken to get here, to see if it provides any hints. It looks a bit like like half of a Space Invader (the ones on the bottom two rows) with extra tentacles, which doesn't really tell me very much.

I try a button. Nothing happens. Well, the floor shudders. I back away until things quieten down. Then I return to the dead end and try the other button. The wall rises to reveal a courtyard containing a maze-like garden, the walls covered with a mess of stairways, balconies, walkways and other artificial outcroppings that would confuse M.C. Escher. Directly in front of me is a large two-headed dog, which introduces itself as the Logic Dog. It explains that I must guess whether it will attack me or let it past, warning that it will attack if I guess incorrectly. Having encountered such puzzles in the past, I give the answer that results in a paradox and, when the Dog attempts to resolve the paradox with violence, point out the flaw in its argument that obliges it to not attack me. The Dog vanishes (possibly to chase Schroedinger's Cat for a bit), and someone congratulates me on having Captain Kirked my way out of a fight.

The speaker introduces himself as Semeion, and invites me to join him. Ascending the stairs to the balcony where he stands is predictably confusing, but I manage not to fall off, on, down, up, out, in or any other way that could be possible. When I finally reach Semeion, he offers to answer any questions I might have. Sensing him to be trustworthy, I show him the Aleph. He knows what it is, though up until now he wasn't sure it actually existed. Then I produce the other items I've acquired in the course of my travels, and as I have all seven of the circular ones that are so important, Semeion is able to convey a message from some higher power: Archmage Globus is evil, and has sent the Stalkers to acquire the Aleph for him. A protective Talisman in the shape of a seven-pointed star appears in the midst of the circular items, and I put it on.

Next I ask Semeion if he knows anything about Globus, and he takes me to his library. Which doesn't use books, but (judging by the description) a kind of tin can-based braille microfiche system. From this, Semeion is able to learn that Globus lives in a well-guarded Citadel on the topmost tier of the Ziggurat World. A deadly Crystal Garden surrounds the Citadel, and there is a secret passage into the Citadel from a lower level. No doubt that way has its own risks.

Semeion has a Telopticon - in effect, a multi-dimensional CCTV camera - and the Ziggurat World just happens to be one of the places he can use it to view, so if I'm interested, I could have a quick look at where the villain lives. I'm interested. The Teleopticon shows me the Ziggurat World (which is most definitely not a sphere, though it is situated inside one), and zooms in on the Citadel, but owing to magical wards placed by Globus, it can't actually see inside the place without a power boost, which it can only get by drawing on its operators' life energies. I'm currently at full Stamina, so I risk it. The transfer of energy is facilitated by the use of large red leeches (I wonder if they're the same kind that Sherlock Holmes encountered in 1894), and I can only restore the Stamina lost to them by drinking sea water.

The boosted Telopticon shows Globus himself, who is surrounded by a glittering dome that Semeion identifies as a Prism of Power. This is a near-perfect protective shield: no living being other than its creator may pass through it, and inanimate objects can only do so very slowly. It wouldn't deter the non-living Stalkers, though, so there's no point in trying to get one of my own.

At this point the Leech-boost fades, and as the Telopticon changes focus, it picks up on the Stalkers. Semeion thinks that taking a closer look at them might help him identify the enchantment that makes them do Globus' bidding, but it would probably attract their attention as well. To paraphrase Nietzsche, when you gaze long at a monster, the monster also gazes at you. I choose to let the Stalkers have their privacy, and decide it's time I was on my way.

Semeion advises me to go to the Ziggurat World, as my travels must take me there sooner or later, and explains that he can't give me any food because he's not actually human, and doesn't need sustenance. Food for thought is a different matter, and while Semeion doesn't actually use the line from Hamlet, his closing advice boils down to 'get Globus hoist with his own petard'. To thank him for his assistance (and relieve myself of one burden), I give him the harp before taking out the Aleph again.

I arrive slightly above a meadow. After picking myself up, I see one of the Stalkers appearing above me. It can't actually detect me, though (between the Talisman and my having done little to draw attention, I'd need to get less than zero on the roll of three dice to be noticed), and soon disappears.

Massive cliffs dominate the landscape, and I hear people approaching, speaking in a Wood Elf dialect (which seems to me about as likely as travelling to a distant galaxy and finding that its inhabitants speak Welsh). Hiding behind a bush, I watch as four Elves emerge from a copse, carrying something alive in a net. One secures the net to a boulder, another lets out a loud cry, and the last two look up. I'm not sure what's going on here, but it looks likely to be unpleasant for the being in the net, so I step into the open to try and find out more about the situation, first extracting Syzuk's hubcap from my backpack in case they're hostile. Perhaps not the smartest thing I've ever done, as the moment the Elves see it, they run off screaming. Still, I can now see what's in the net without interference.

It's a creature like the one that fell out of the sky at the start of the adventure. This one has a broken leg, and tells me to flee, as he knows my burden and does not want me (and it) to be captured by the flocks of Silica Serpents that are heading this way. I disregard the warning, and carry him into cover. He thanks me and explains that he is a Mercurial, one of the beings that guard the ways between worlds. He also warns me to leave this world at once, before Globus can find out that I'm here.

I head for the cliffs, which don't seem any closer after some hours' walking. Reaching a hilly, forested region, I climb a tall tree on the top of the highest hill, and see that there are grassy plains to the left, and a coastline to the right. As I need some seawater to replenish my precious bodily fluids, I head that way.

Close to the sea I find a ruined town, and I notice some large bubbles out on the water. Undeterred, I get myself a drink, noting as I do that there are large webbed footprints in the sand. While I'm looking at them, a huge bubble rises out of the water, bearing half a dozen large amphibians with shark tooth-edged swords. The bubble dissolves, and its occupants advance on me. Not liking the odds, I surrender.

These creatures, which are called Vaskind, drag me into the bubble (didn't it dissolve last section?) and transport me to the vast undersea dome that houses their city. The air is breathable, though not very pleasant. My captors place me on a pedestal in front of a throne, on which sits a crown but no monarch. The illustration for this section also depicts a Vaskind with a big fish on a leash, which is delightful.

A robed Vaskind says they bear me no malice, but have no idea what kind of creature I am. He asks if I'm a friend of Globus, and I tell the truth - that he's anything but. The Vaskind wonders if I could be the prophesied warrior who will aid his people against their oppressor (despite my 'unimpressive' appearance), and tells me that Globus' Silica Serpents and Black Shadows have driven them from the land, but they dare not rise up against him as he holds their Queen hostage. He mentions the two ways of getting to Globus' Vitreous Citadel, and indicates that the Crystal Garden is guarded by the Serpents and full of dangerous plants, while the secret tunnel leads from the tower of the more deadly Shadows.

Before having me taken back to shore, the Vaskind provides me with some extra food. Back on dry land, I find myself close to the cliff, and start to trudge along the path that zig-zags up it. Some time later (shortly after passing through a cloud layer) I rest on a ledge, noting that there are two ways on from it. One leads to a region dotted with towers, the other to a flatter area. The towers could be Shadow territory, so I make for the flat land.

When I reach the top of the cliff some hours later, I see little but rocks and gullies between here and the next cliff. Well, little geographically speaking. But the sky's pretty busy with Silica Serpents. One lands close by, and gets its wings caught on something. I hide to see what happens next. After a while, a group of Ophidians (tall, skinny humanoids with spidery limbs) wearing black glass armour approaches the Serpent. The armour protects them from the Serpent's highly corrosive spittle, and one of the Ophidians plays a set of pipes, pacifying the Serpent and enabling the Ophidians to muzzle and leash it and take it away. In the hope of being able to get some pipes and armour like theirs, I discreetly follow.

Eventually they stop at the foot of a sheer escarpment with a cave mouth about half way up. Half of the Ophidians climb the rock wall like spiders, and the rest play pipes and release the Serpent, which obediently follows the climbers. The second lot of Ophidians follow the first, and after a bit, I follow them as best I can. Up close, the rock face isn't quite as featureless as it looked, but it's still quite a challenging climb. Not beyond my capabilities, though, and as the Ophidians don't think anyone not of their kind would be daft enough to attempt the climb, there's no guard.

Two tunnels lead from the cave. The shrieks of Silica Serpents echo down one of them, so I try the other. It leads to a store room, containing spears, coils of rope, suits of glass armour and pipes. I help myself to rope, armour and pipes (incidentally discovering the gauntlets that come with the armour to be fitted with retractable hooks that facilitate climbing), return to ground level, and start heading towards the next big cliff. The armour slightly restricts my movement, and carries a Skill penalty, but I think acid-proofing is liable to be worth more than full mobility up ahead.

Eventually I reach the cliff. There's no path up this one, so it's a good thing I have armour with built-in climbing gear. This enables me to make the ascent without incident, and at last I clamber over a parapet and into the Ballard-esque Crystal Garden. Tethered Silica Serpents guard the paths through it, but I'm not bothered because I have pipes. Taking the most direct route means only having to deal with one of the Serpents, and a quick tootle puts that one to sleep.

The Vitreous Citadel is surrounded by a bright blue moat, which gives off smoke. One bridge leads across the moat, ending in an overly fancy door: the black marble frame is carved to resemble a face, with the doorway as the mouth. Which makes the bridge its tongue. Still, it's that or the moat, and I'm wearing armour, not a diving suit, so I don't think wading would be very clever.

After I've taken a few steps onto the bridge, it starts retracting towards the doorway. It's not very stable, and I struggle to keep my balance. When I'm half way across the moat, the bridge stops retracting, but becomes no more stable. The carved face speaks, stating that it knows me to be an intruder as I'm neither an Ophidian nor a Black Shadow and I didn't say the password. It should kill me, but, being a rather vain and arrogant doorway, it might spare me if I plead nicely enough. So I try to flatter the doorway. Hilariously, as I soon begin running out of characteristics to praise, I wind up complimenting the doorway on just how black and shiny it is. It works - to an extent. Spouting self-important verse (it starts by identifying itself as Archduke Gateway, and then moves on to even more grandiose titles), the doorway challenges me to say how many crowns it has. I answer correctly, and the bridge becomes stable for as long as it takes me to complete my crossing.

Proceeding into the Citadel, I trek through marbled corridors populated with crystal statues, and eventually reach two doorways. Usually, if I get this far when playing the book, I go into the room where the Vaskind Queen is imprisoned, as she'd be willing to sacrifice her life to save me from the last trap before Globus. But from the times I reached that trap unaccompanied, I know that the Talisman I wear also has some use in the situation, so on this occasion I'll spare her majesty the painful death, and head straight for the Archmage's chambers.

I step through a doorway into a darkened room. The door slams behind me, and lights begin to glow. A beam of light hits me, and I am subjected to intense pressure. The Talisman lights up, diminishing the intensity of the beam. It could still prove fatal if I were in worse health, but as it is, my Stamina is high enough that I survive.

The beam cuts out, and then the Prism of Power appears, and Globus within it. He claims to be the owner of the Aleph, only sheltering in the Prism because of the enemies who have beset him since he lost his 'bauble', and offers to richly reward me if I hand the sphere 'back' to him. I tell him, "No."

He turns nasty, and threatens to summon the Spectral Stalkers. I defy him to do his worst. He rants, raves, and threatens, and when I remain unimpressed, makes a gesture that causes the Stalkers to begin to take shape in the room.

"All right, you've convinced me," I say, and pass the Aleph through the Prism. Globus eagerly grabs the item he has sought for so long, and gloats that it's too late. The Stalkers are already here, and while under his power, they are compelled to slay the holder of the Aleph. Then it dawns on him that that's not me any more. In a panic, he tries to throw the Aleph back to me, but the Prism's impermeability to fast-moving objects foils that desperate plan. And then the Stalkers are fully formed, and moments later Globus is no longer fully formed. And because they were bound to give him the Aleph once they'd killed its bearer, one of them then picks the Sphere up and puts it neatly beside the Archmage's remains.

Once the Stalkers have gone, I retrieve the Aleph. As is traditional, the villain's base is starting to collapse now he's dead, so I don't hang around for long. The Garden, the Serpents and the Shadows are also destroyed by Globus' passing, so the other peoples of the Ziggurat World are free, and insist on giving me large quantities of treasure. After several days of celebration, I manage to return home by Aleph, after which the sphere takes itself off to some other part of the Macrocosm. Of course, nobody there is liable to believe me if I start talking about having saved everyone everywhere from Globus' machinations, but I know, I'm recognised as a hero on more than one other world, and the loot in my backpack must be worth something on Titan, so that's a pretty satisfying result, all things considered.

Well, that was fun. Again. It's a pity I missed some of the other worlds that can be visited in the course of the adventure - the acquisition and subsequent deployment of the mighty weapon known as Extinguisher is one of the best bits of humour in all FF. Still, I got to all of the most important ones, which I've never before managed in the course of a single adventure, so I shouldn't complain too much.

Mr. Darvill-Evans is known to be a fan of Doctor Who, and while his earlier FF books both include sequences with strong similarities to scenes from seventies Who (and a path not taken by me on this occasion may involve the use of an umbrella for protection from jets of acid much like in The Krotons) this whole adventure reads like a love letter to the series. The hero is transported through time and space, often with little control over where his means of transport takes him. More often than not, he arrives in a place where wrongs need righting, people require rescuing, and villains have to be thwarted. Much of the time, intelligence and quick wits are of greater value than brute force, but the hero is able to defend himself if need be. And so on. Personally, I consider Spectral Stalkers to encapsulate the spirit of Doctor Who far better than any of the actual licensed gamebooks based on the series. Or any of the author's Doctor Who novels, for that matter.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Though It Was Fairly Slow

I suspect that at some point between writing the first Lone Wolf Magnakai adventure, The Kingdoms of Terror, and starting on its follow-up, Castle Death, Joe Dever realised that he'd neglected to provide any clue as to the location of the next McGuffin in the series, hence the somewhat awkward revelation in Castle Death's 'The Story So Far...' bit that that information popped into my character's head just after the end of Kingdoms. The second Lorestone is in Herdos, around a thousand miles East-South-East of where the previous adventure ended.

Before I get on with the adventure, I should decide which Discipline I acquired at the end of the previous one. Given that I'm exploiting Lore-circles (combinations of Disciplines which provide bonuses to my attributes) to increase my chances of surviving some particularly harsh fights in later books, I should go for one of Huntmastery, Psi-Surge (advanced psychic attacks) and Nexus (telekinesis and resistance to extreme temperatures). This time I'm choosing Huntmastery, as, in addition to reducing the inconvenience caused by ambushes, it completes the Lore-Circle of Fire and raises my basic stats to
Combat Skill: 17
Endurance: 25
I can also add a new weapon to the proficiency list. I don't recall any of the available ones being particularly significant here, so I pick Mace in memory of the first Lone Wolf I played on this blog.

As usual, I can select extra equipment from a list before starting the adventure. I restock on arrows, grab an extra Meal and a lantern, and help myself to a couple of Fireseeds, which are essentially naturally occurring incendiary grenades.

I'm also given some additional money, and it's pointed out that any cash above the limit I can carry may be stored in the Kai monastery for future use. I presume I went to the monastery to put the first Lorestone into safe keeping - a quick detour 650-odd miles to the north just to stash away 4 surplus gold coins would be a bit silly. While at the monastery, I also leave my map of Tekaro behind (since I'm not likely to need it again) and put all the Combat Skill-enhancing Alether I acquired last book into storage because I remember what happens at the end of this adventure.

Centuries ago, the Elder Magi assisted the first Kai Grand Master at Herdos, so for perfectly sound and logical (yet undisclosed) reasons (definitely not a publicity stunt, honest) my next stop is Elzian, home of the Magi, which is only a couple of hundred miles beyond Herdos. There I am shown a vision of the fortress Kazan-Oud, which contains the Lorestone I seek. It also houses a powerful force of evil that the Magi aren't capable of destroying, so they suggest that I might want to deal with it myself while I'm in the area, if it's not too much bother.

For my journey to Herdos I am accompanied by a warrior-magician named Paido. Given that he's the hero of the mini-adventure in the Mongoose edition of book 8, I considered playing that before Castle Death, as I'm pretty sure the mini is set before this book rather than between the two. Still, if I were that intent on playing in order of internal chronology, I should probably have gone for the mini from Mongoose book 5 before starting the Lone Wolf series.

Anyway, Paido and I travel by sky-ship, and our conversation along the way includes the revelation that Paido's brother died in Kazan-Oud. I don't think there's any follow-up to that: Paido won't be accompanying me into the fortress to try and avenge his brother, and I have no recollection of a section detailing the discovery of the late Kasin's remains. It's just one of those 'awkward silence and change of topic' moments.

At Herdos I see one of the towers that create a magical shield around Kazan-Oud to prevent its inhabitants from getting out and causing trouble. It also prevents people from getting in, so I'm provided with an enchanted gem that will enable its bearer to pass through the shield. At night a fishing boat takes me out onto the lake surrounding the island on which the fortress stands, and once we draw near to the shield, I get into a coracle and paddle the rest of the way on my own.

There are two places where I could make a landing. If I remember rightly, the stone jetty is home to a voracious horde of rats, so I'll try the sheltered bay instead. And I do not remember correctly, as the rats are in the bay. Is it too late to retreat and head for the jetty? Yes. The rats swim after me and gnaw holes in the coracle. Oddly, I get asked if I have the Discipline of Curing. Nexus I could understand - the temperature resistance aspect would come in handy to protect me from the cold of the lake's waters. But Curing? It's not as if I'm going to have a chance of healing the boat, now is it?

And the consequence of my not having Curing is... that I get entangled in some of the lake's plant life and have to fight to get free before I drown. Which isn't difficult. I soon get to shore, and crouch down by a boulder to take stock. The soaking has ruined all the food I was carrying, and I've also lost a lantern and a healing potion. Still, things could be worse.

They are. The boulder's not a boulder. It's one of the eyes of some kind of beached leviathan, and is now opening to look at me. Running away is inadvisable when I have no idea of the extent of this thing's reach, so I pull out my sword and poke the beast in the eye. It doesn't like that, and seizes me with a tentacle. Perhaps I should have gone for Psi-surge rather than Huntmastery, as the former is the Discipline that gets a name-check here. As I don't have it, the tentacle squeezes me senseless, then conveys me to another not-a-boulder, which turns out to be the creature's mouth.

Friday, 17 January 2014

A War Spanning Light-Years and Many Parallel Space-Time Continua

A few months back, I played Allen Varney's Through Six Dimensions for this blog, and the author himself commented on the post, pointing out that the book had been written to be played multiple times (using the 'more than one way to win' approach, rather than the less fun 'gradually figure out the extremely narrow True Path, and then get lucky enough to survive it' model beloved of certain gamebook authors). In response, I decided to give the book another go once this blog reached the 200th playthrough. Which is now.

So, to recap the premise, in this book I play the Marvel Comics superhero Doctor Strange, who has to try and resolve an inter-dimensional conflict that is starting to spill over into Earth's dimension. Mere minutes after being warned of this by doomed magi from dimensions already devastated by being used as battlefields, I learn that there are already reports of 'monsters' manifesting in New York City, and must do what I can to protect the locals from being caught in the crossfire.

As before, I'll start by heading for the waterfront in the neighbourhood known as 'Hell's Kitchen', where a many-winged aircraft is attacking a saucer-shaped boat. After levitating the spectators away, creating shields to protect the buildings, and creating thick mists to conceal the battle from those who aren't ready to face the reality of multi-dimensional war, I intervene in the fight. The first time I played this book, I got penalised for allowing the disc to get destroyed and its crew killed, so I suppose I should aid it in its attack on the aircraft.

After I decide to do so, the text lets me know that the disc's crew are obviously struggling to defend themselves against the aircraft. That's the sort of detail it would have been useful to have in the previous section, before I had to pick a side. All right, so it could potentially have been inferred from the line about shots 'missing their airborne target', but in context it seems to be saying 'these guys don't care about collateral damage' more than 'they're in trouble and will probably die unless you intervene'. I can imagine some readers getting quite put out if they decided to take action against the combatants who were endangering civilians, and consequently got hit with a Karma penalty for ganging up on the underdog.

Anyway, I down the aircraft without harming its crew, then turn my attention to the disc's crew, who stamp their feet in applause. They're all elderly, and while pleased that the war has got them out of retirement, they want the fighting to end, and regret that it's spilled over to Earth. I send them home, and check that there's nothing more for me to do here.

This leads to a short meeting with Daredevil, and at this point I (the blogger, not the character) owe Mr. Varney an apology. In my previous playthrough of TSD I described this encounter as 'a rather pointless cameo', but since then I've learned that Hell's Kitchen is Daredevil's territory, so it would have been inappropriate for him not to turn up when there was an alien threat in the area. Now that that's been removed, he'll help deal with the aftermath of the fighting, leaving me free to proceed to another of the incursions.

Next I go to Wall Street, which prompts critical reflections on the whole Stock Exchange culture. But the killings that have been made there today are of the literal kind: corpses of the same species that operated the disc I rescued litter the main chamber of the Stock Exchange, and something like a tank is firing on more of their kind, while they ineffectually retaliate with little fireballs. I could just do the same as on my previous go at the book, summoning a mighty wind to send both sides back through the portals that brought them here. But there are three other ways to try and help deal with the tank, and while I'm sure that some of them will be totally useless, it'd be interesting to see if I can get a different positive outcome here, so I'm going to find out what the Crimson Bands of Cytorrak can do.

Pretty much what I guessed last time: the tank is immobilised, but not disarmed. So it fires at me, which comes as more of a surprise than it should, really. I spend a couple of Karma points to improve my chances of dodging the bolt of energy (not enough to make success a foregone conclusion, as an element of risk is no bad thing in a gamebook), and just score high enough. As I levitate out of the way, possibly getting my moustache singed in the process, the beings whom the tank had been attacking open fire again, distracting its occupants. With the tank no longer able to move, I can attempt to turn insubstantial and go into it, so that's what I do. No, my unfamiliarity with Doctor Strange's repertoire of tricks has caused me to misinterpret the text: in fact, I've detached my consciousness from my body and sent that into the tank. Leaving my physical form very vulnerable, but before the tank's pilots can take advantage of that, I use my amulet to transfix them.

Reading their minds, I learn that they are hardened killers, that the current manifestations are just a prelude to the planned full-scale invasion of Earth, and that an elite infantry squad is hunting a spy who found out something important. This squad possesses some form of special protection that would shield them from the sort of magic I'm using to immobilise the tank crew, so I should probably try and avoid direct interaction with the elites.

After rendering the pilots unconscious, I return to my body and approach the other combatants, who are very fearful of me. Unlike the disc crew, these soldiers are in their low teens. On the other hand, they share their elders' determination to fight the enemy, and some of them also have qualms about bringing the fight into neutral dimensions, though they do find that preferable to having further devastation wrought in their home dimension. I also get a little information that would have helped with choosing the right side in Hell's Kitchen, had I not gone there first. I doubt that there's any message intended here, but it is regrettable that the book makes it mildly advantageous to deal with the troubles of the rich and powerful before doing anything to help the more needy.

I send everything that came through a portal back whence it came, fix all the damage caused by the fighting here, and erase investors' memories of the whole incident before turning invisible and leaving. Pity I didn't do such a thorough job of putting things right in the less affluent part of town.

There's still one extra-dimensional incursion needing my attention, so I move on to Farmingdale's Department Store. In my more materialist days I was a regular customer there, but now I've lost interest in the sort of overpriced tat that they sell. Much of which has been smashed or thrown aside by the skinny green men who stalk the aisles. My intuition tells me that they're searching for something, and even if I hadn't played the book before, it would be pretty obvious that this is the elite squad the tank crew were thinking about.

In view of their special protection, I leave them alone and seek their quarry, soon detecting his aura on the second floor. The expenditure of a little Karma helps me to keep him from freaking out when I approach him, and after tending his wounds, I use the amulet to get him to tell me why the other aliens are so determined to find and kill him. He tells me what he learned about the ancient artifact that has enabled Kallesh Ghann, the leader of the enemy forces, to change the balance of power in their ongoing conflict, and the device that neutralises it, which he stole, and has hidden in the store, concealing it so effectively that not even he knows where it is now.

I decide to accompany him back to his home dimension, and he directs me to the marketplace, where the locals huddle around the 'glowspheres' that are the only source of heat and light here since Ghann stole their sun. He then has me take him to the palace of Bel Auric, his leader (and the only person who can make and maintain the glowspheres). The soldier reports in, and before long he's taken away for further medical attention while I get an audience with Bel Auric.

Auric is old and weary, and probably not as glamorous or as impractically dressed as the illustration shows her to be. She explains that she's had little time to do anything but glowsphere creation and upkeep of late, and thinks it unlikely that she'll ever find out what has increased Ghann's power to the extent that he can threaten her realm. The book's internal continuity gets a bit sloppy here: even though the spy told me what Ghann's power source is, I don't pass on this information, but offer to try and find out by using my amulet. Assuming that it's possible to reach this meeting without encountering the spy, it makes sense that the text wouldn't automatically have me passing on information I might not have learned, but it would make even more sense to have an 'If you have learned about Sighald's Battery' check here so that readers who do have that knowledge can act on it.

As I start my search for the source of Ghann's power, his troops commence their assault on Auric's palace. Which is odd, as the only reason the fighting had shifted to other dimensions was because both sides had agreed to stop fighting in their home dimensions. And while I wouldn't put it past Ghann to arbitrarily break that agreement without warning, Auric's reaction to this attack implies that it's an inevitability rather than a betrayal.

Disregarding the nearby conflict, I follow the lines of force being revealed by the amulet, and discover that this is a Schroedinger's Gamebook. The first time I played this book, the Battery enabled Ghann to draw upon the life energy of slaves. This time round, the source of his power is Auric herself. This creates an interesting moral quandary: as long as Auric remains able to protect her subjects, she strengthens their attackers. Her death could well bring about Ghann's defeat - though it would certainly doom her people to death in the cold and the dark.

The text makes out that I'm partly to blame for the invasion because I came here rather than guarding the multi-dimensional path that Ghann's troops used to get here. I'm not accepting that. As I pointed out a couple of paragraphs ago, it was an agreement that kept Ghann from attacking here, not lack of access. Having major plot points vary between different routes through the book is one thing - it's an approach on which I am far from keen, but an accepted gamebook technique all the same. Changing fundamental premises is a different matter. There are ways it could be made to work - presenting it as a twist, a revelation that the Six Sorcerers who contacted me at the start of the adventure were wrong about why the battle had spread to other dimensions, something along those lines - but this is just an inconsistency.

Anyway, back to the plot. I'm not going to take the 'easy' way out. There has to be a better solution than indirect genocide. Besides which, there's no guarantee that killing Auric (and by extension her people) will stop Ghann - the loss of his main power source is sure to inconvenience him, but beyond that, the outcome is uncertain.

My power doesn't give the invaders any aid, so I'm able to at least temporarily repel the hostile troops at the door. Auric appears to be preparing for something needlessly self-sacrificial, and I can't try to talk her out of it because I have to deal with another wave of Ghann's troops. By the time I've set up shields and counterspells to keep the attackers out, Auric has turned the available glowspheres into a pyre with which to immolate herself. I try to intervene, but this just leaves the way open for the next wave of attackers to overwhelm the pair of us.

Well, playing the book again has certainly changed my opinion of it. But not for the better. Between its self-contradictory aspects and its failure to adequately justify Auric's suicide, Through Six Dimensions has dropped from 'not bad' to 'significantly flawed' in my estimation. Oh, well. Maybe my 300th playthrough will be less of a disappointment than this and the hundredth one have been.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Perhaps Everyone Runs From the Taxman

In December 2001 I owned around half a dozen FF gamebooks (plus Clash of the Princes, stashed in a box somewhere at the parental home). They were mostly ones I'd owned before, never actually beaten by the rules, and had reacquired after finding them for next to nothing in charity shops, intending to try and achieve that elusive victory and then donate them back.

A few posts back I mentioned Wood Ingham, the friend from my university days who tracked down a copy of The Keep of the Lich-Lord for me during the later stages of my building up my Fighting Fantasy collection. He also, indirectly, played an important part in getting the collection going. As long as I've known Wood, he's been keen to share his interests, and my book, CD and comic collections would all be significantly smaller if not for his recommendations and gifts. So when someone gave him a few hundred issues of 2000 A.D. in 2001, he put the ones of which he already had copies into a box and mailed it to me. It was a big box, far to big to fit through the letterbox where I lived, so the postman took it to the depot and left me a note saying there was a parcel for me to collect.

The Saturday morning after I received the postman's note, I went to the depot to collect the parcel. The route from where I lived to the depot passed a charity shop, and I decided to pop in there for a browse along the way. On the bookshelves at the back of the shop, I found a sea of green. A whole row of books with spines in the colour that elicits a Pavlovian response from anyone who collected Fighting Fantasy books in the eighties or nineties.

11 years after completing the set, I still react whenever I spot that green in a bookshop.

Four of the FF books in the shop were ones I'd never owned before. I bought them, along with another three of which I had fond memories. The 2000 A.D.s didn't get much attention that weekend, as I had gamebooks to play. During my lunch break on the Monday, I trekked back to the shop and bought the nine FF books that were still there. I was back into FF all right.

The earliest of the new-to-me books in that collection was Legend of the Shadow Warriors, Stephen Hand's second contribution to the series. The first time I played it, my character died in the initial confrontation with the eponymous Warriors, as a result of standing and fighting when he should have retreated.

My character is a former war hero, who's spent the last five years as a straightforward adventurer. Back in familiar territory, and finding that I've largely been forgotten by the people I once helped defend, I visit a tavern to see if anyone there requires my services. Before long, a farmer named Mendokan comes up to me and explains that the people of Karnstein village need help, as they're being attacked. Not by Vampires, but by local bogeyman-equivalents the Shadow Warriors. I find this claim far-fetched, and I'm not the only one - Mendokan only sought me out because nobody else would take his appeal for aid seriously. Not much of a vote of confidence in my skills.

Does he have any grounds for treating me as a last resort? Probably not, since I shall be allocating dice for this adventure, as there's at least one nasty and unavoidable fight. Still, I can only work with the numbers I get, so there is a possibility of my having lousy stats even with a little tailoring of my character.
Skill 11
Stamina 17
Luck 10
A fairly respectable character, so I have a decent chance of surviving at least as far as the maze with the arbitrary Instant Death that's ended most of my more successful attempts at this book.

Unlike everyone else Mendokan approached, I decide to take the job, assuming that a bunch of brigands are using the standard Scooby-Doo set-up as cover for their crimes, and deciding that sorting them out will be a job worth doing. We arrange a rendezvous, and I'm about to start shopping for equipment when infamous gambler Bartolph approaches me and asks if I'm up for a wager. I decline because I know that I only have a limited amount of time in which to make my purchases, and I don't think the possibility of getting more money outweighs the reduction in opportunities to spend it.

There are two separate sections to the market, one selling basic equipment, the other offering more unusual items. For reasons that have never made much sense to me, food and mirrors are classified as unusual items here, while the ordinary, everyday stuff includes a substance that dissolves metal while not harming flesh. And manacles. I buy all of the things I've just mentioned, as well as a rope and grappling iron, and a lantern.

As I attempt to move on, I find my way blocked by half a dozen city guards. They are accompanied by Quinsberry Woad, tax collector, who informs me that I owe back taxes plus interest (adding up to more than twice the sum of what I had at the start of the adventure and what the people of Karnstein are prepared to pay for my services), and unless I pay up immediately, I am to be arrested. I push him into his guards, causing the lot of them to fall over (I think I just invented a fun new version of bowling), and leg it while the crowds are laughing.

More guards block my way up ahead, so I take an unorthodox short cut through a house, narrowly avoiding being hit by the full chamber pot that was precariously balanced atop the door. Maybe the old woman who lives in the house was expecting a visit from Woad. She calls for help, and I hurry through the other door from the room. This leads to the kitchen, in which a dog is sleeping, and I creep through to the back door. For some reason, while the woman's cries did not disturb the dog, the arrival of my pursuers does, so the guards find their way blocked by a cantankerous canine.

Continuing on my way, I see a tattooist's. I'm not about to go up against Zanbar Bone, so I don't need a tattoo, and stopping to get one while being hunted by guards is every bit as inadvisable as it sounds. Consequently, I hurry on, winding up at Ranter's Corner, a busy part of town where people may make speeches on any issue, and the crowds are free to heckle. There are guards present in case things should turn ugly, and while they're not yet aware that I'm a wanted man, it won't take long for them to find out, so I plunge into the crowd around a black-clad man who's agitating for another war. Despite the poor quality of his arguments, he does appear to be getting some support, so I provide a counterargument. Well, I hit him in the face. They do say that actions speak louder than words, and a practical demonstration of the consequences of violence may discourage the onlookers from seeking further conflict.

Four stooges in the audience accuse me of supporting the people who started the previous war, and start a brawl. It gets vicious with alarming rapidity, and looks like it could be more than the guards can handle. Feeling some responsibility for this, I attack the leader of the troublemakers, who's displaying an inordinate amount of brutality. He's not much of a foe for a trained fighter, though, and things quieten down once he's dead. An examination of the body shows the man to have been a servant of Chaos, who was using magic to influence the crowd. Thankful for my intervention, the guard marshal presents me with a Scroll of Civic Pardon, clearing my debt.

I continue towards the East Gate, spotting a rubbish cart. While I could hide in it to make my exit from the city unobserved, there's no need. Besides, it's so much more satisfying to march right up to Woad, who's waiting for me at the gate, shove the Scroll in his face and tell him what he can do with his tax bill. This book is definitely a fantasy.

At the arranged location I meet Mendokan and a couple of his friends, and we set off for Karnstein. The journey is uneventful until we reach the Magyaar Pass, where the narrow path runs between a sheer rock face and a deep ravine. It is here that the Shadow Warriors ride to meet us, and it rapidly becomes apparent that they're not Quinsberry Woad and a few of his guards in rubber masks. Mendokan and his companions are rapidly slain, and I try to flee before a similar fate can befall me. I make it to a stretch of path so narrow that the Shadow Warriors must ride in single file, but one of them is really keen to kill me, and has outpaced the rest, so I must fight him.

Each Shadow Warrior has his own unique gimmick, and on this occasion the one who catches up to me is the one with two swords. I'm quite glad that the rules have this extra weapon causing him to do double damage whenever he hits, rather than giving him two separate attacks, as the fight would be a good deal more fiddly if there were extra attacks to resolve. Besides, he only wins one round of combat, so the additional damage is trivial. Mind you, my victory is only temporary: the Warrior's body dissolves, and will re-form elsewhere, eager for a rematch.

The other Warriors are getting close, though, and I'd rather not take on the rest, so I try and jump across the ravine, only just succeeding at the Skill roll to make it across. The path on the far side of the ravine is too narrow for the Warriors' horses to be able to make a good landing if they were to leap over as well. Perhaps fearful of the impending dawn, the Warriors give up the chase - for now, at least. Still, we are sure to meet again (unless something fatal befalls me before then), and my character is almost looking forward to the encounter: having failed to protect Mendokan and his friends, I have a stain on my honour that can only be removed by destroying the Warriors.

Of course, to do that I must find a way of killing them that makes them stay dead. East of here is the home of a hermit who knows plenty of arcane lore, so I make a detour that way to see if he knows how to permanently kill a Shadow Warrior. The road passes a spring with waters that bestow beneficial effects, so I stop for a drink. Before I reach the water, a highwayman emerges from hiding, crossbow pointed at my heart. He claims to have killed the hermit, and demands my money. He's unlikely to be satisfied with what little gold I have left, and I missed the opportunity to get a shiny item that would turn him into a drooling imbecile, so I'm going to have to fight and hope that his aim's lousy.

It is (and the damage a hit would have done is significantly less than might be expected for a crossbow bolt in the heart). The highwayman's not that good at melee combat, either, and before long he's in no fit state to rob anyone else. I take what little food and money he has, drink from the spring (gaining some Stamina and Luck) and decide to see if he did manage to kill the hermit.

He didn't. Hammicus the hermit invites me in, provides a meal, and explains that the Shadow Warriors are the lieutenants of Voivod, a nasty piece of work who was imprisoned by a couple of personifications of the world over two millennia ago. His return is foretold in a book that Hammicus hasn't actually read, and it's pretty obvious that that return is imminent.

The exposition is interrupted when Hammicus' son knocks on the door and asks to come in. The son who died seven years ago. Parental devotion overriding common sense, the hermit heads for the door, and when I try and stop him from unbolting it, he attacks me. Undeterred, I restrain him until he sees sense, and whatever was outside departs. To thank me for saving his life, Hammicus tells me how to delay the return of a defeated Shadow Warrior by a century - they can't be fully destroyed as long as Voivod lives, but exiling them to limbo for a hundred years is better than nothing.

My visit to Hammicus has taken some time, so I decide to try heading for Karnstein as the crow flies rather thank taking the more roundabout route offered by the roads. This means that I'm crossing a field when the storm begins, and before I can decide whether to seek shelter or just press on, the ground starts to shake. This is not conventional seismic activity: ordinary earthquakes tend not to cause the ground to rear up and form into the semblance of a face.

I decide to investigate this peculiar phenomenon (heroism and common sense don't often mix particularly well), and the face spews several Crombane at me. These monstrosities are like giant flies, only flightless, with human heads and assorted body parts from random flora and fauna. There's no illustration to clarify exactly how the 'ill-advised collaboration between Frankenstein and Moreau' aesthetic creates the fly-like vibe, but whatever they look like, it can't be pretty. The Crombane also have corrosive saliva that would be a problem if I were wearing armour, but as I'm not, it's pretty irrelevant. In any case, I only take one wound all fight.

Proceeding to a nearby copse (though by now I'm probably drenched enough that taking cover will make little difference), I get herded by lightning bolts towards the monster at the heart of the copse, a malignant tree known as a Mahogadon. Not having purchased any Sleeping Draught in the market (I might have done if it were a Nitrazepam-based one, just for the opportunity to try and incapacitate the Mahogadon with Mogadon), I must fight this arboreal adversary. Despite being a better fighter than the Crombane, it fares no better against me than they did, and I'm soon on my way south again.

After a while I see another face in the scenery, this one formed by nearby reeds, but it's not as hostile as the one in the ground. It introduces itself as Jack-in-the-Green, makes a rather obvious reference to the Shadow Warriors and Voivod, and offers me a chance to prove myself worthy of being allowed to assist the Earth-mother. I accept, and am instructed to lay to rest 'the sleepers who should not be disturbed' at the nearby town of Hustings. And this is a problem that cannot be fixed with violence, for 'Evil must be left to consume itself'. Jack-in-the-Green also warns me that I will fail unless I find the man of numbers or his book.

Continuing on my way, I notice a column of earth that can only have been created with magic, topped by a tower of 'oozing, living sludge' (don't ask how I'm able to make that out when the column of earth is a hundred feet high and it's still a dark and stormy night). Something humanoid emerges from the bog near the road, and I've obviously not learned my lesson, as I approach the 'man' and am apparently surprised to find that the figure is not human (but it is hostile). In these conditions I can't see what my opponent is, but the text calls it a Haggwort, and I soon call it another dead assailant.

Lightning reveals the Haggwort (the plural and singular forms of the name are identical, like 'sheep' (though that and being in the countryside are about the only things sheep and Haggwort have in common)) to resemble pumpkin-headed scarecrows, and shows that many of them are converging on Hustings. One blocks the path and, remembering that violence is apparently not the answer here (as well as somehow being aware that damaging a Haggwort's head will cause it to explode), I leave the road rather than attack. This causes me to fall into a sinkhole, but I'm able to extricate myself with the rope and grapple.

The strange tower looks like the sort of place where I might find the way to deal with the Haggwort, so I go to the tower of earth. A door opens in the side, and half a dozen Haggwort emerge, taking me prisoner, dragging me up a spiral staircase, and snapping my sword just to prove that violence is not the answer here. They then sit me at a table with a stake and a plate of sludge on it, silently indicating that they want me to eat what's on the plate. I decline, as I prefer not to eat anything that's toxic or still alive, and the sludge is both. After a bit, it slithers away (the text indicates that it does so out of boredom rather than reluctance to be eaten, making me wonder if it has a similar outlook to The Restaurant at the End of the Universe's Dish of the Day), and my as yet unseen hostess reprimands me for refusing her hospitality.

Curtains rise to reveal an ancient-looking vampire-esque figure in a throne, next to what's either a living fireplace shaped like a Haggwort's head or the head of a giant Haggwort with a fire in its mouth. Either way, I'm not mad about the d├ęcor. The occupant of the throne introduces herself as Urtha, who used to be a vampire until some of the local peasants destroyed her with the stake on the table. She got better, and is now a Wamphyr, who expects to become queen when Voivod takes over. Urtha also shows off the iron wristband that enables her to control the Haggwort.

Figuring out that Urtha's a bit of a show-off (the business with the curtains was a dead giveaway), I challenge her to prove how tough she is by confronting me on her own, without Haggwort support. She relinquishes control over them and, evidently not being monarchists, they promptly bundle her into the fire, which consumes her in seconds. I pick up the iron band, and become aware that the fireplace has closed its mouth and eyes, and the whole tower is beginning to sink into the marsh, so I make a rapid exit.

The battle of Hustings hasn't gone so well for the townspeople, though the Haggwort have stopped attacking now they're free from Urtha's influence. Jack-in-the-Green manifests in the grass, pleased with my achievements, and I find myself transported west to Cauldon Ring, an ancient stone circle. There I encounter manifestations of a couple of the elemental gods, who present me with the Spear of Doom, a weapon they've created for use against Voivod, 'which gives death to the living, and life to the dead'. It has a limited number of charges, so I can't really use it as a replacement for the sword the Haggwort broke. Still, the penalty for being unarmed in this book is a lot lower than in many FF titles, so I'm not in dire need yet.

Transported back to near Hustings, I resume my trek until I reach a fork in the road. Some way ahead are the mountains of the Witchtooth Line, where every character I've had that survived this far has died, one way or another. But before I reach them, I come to the abandoned town of Cumbleside. Which isn't quite as abandoned as its reputation suggests, judging by the light burning in the highest window of a tower there. Reckless as ever, I investigate, finding the door locked. Beside it are a bell-pull and a brass plaque engraved with the words, 'Dr Kauderwelsch - Diseases of the Mind'.

Wondering if this doctor can do something about my unhealthy curiosity, I ring the bell. A young woman lets me in, and takes me to a cosy study, then fetches me some food and drink. I choose not to eat, and she seems surprised that I'm distrustful, what with my having such a marvellous brain. Not exactly the least suspicion-inducing compliment I've ever received. I try to change the subject, asking her about herself, and get a response that suggests she's a psychiatrist. When I demand a straight answer, she flees upstairs to her laboratory, which is furnished in the classical mad scientist style. Right down to the body stitched together from bits of corpses and crudely animated by unnatural means. Revealing herself to be Doktor Kauderwelsch herself, the woman sets the creature on me: though functional enough to fight, it still lacks one crucial organ (you shouldn't have much difficulty guessing which), and I've been chosen as the donor.

Even fighting bare-handed, I'm more than a match for the monster. Inevitably, the lab is set alight in the course of the fight, so I only have time to grab one item afterwards. While the ceramic mongoose paperweight stands out for being so quirkily specific, I think it unlikely that not having one will spell defeat, so I take the boring option and rearm myself with a sword that just happens to be lying around - possibly the former property of an involuntary contributor to the Doktor's failed experiment.

After spending the night in a sheltered glade, I change direction and head west towards the town of Shattuck. I've had numerous characters die in the tunnels beneath the Witchtooth Line (the only one who didn't find the arbitrary Instant Death in the dream maze wound up killed by some multi-limbed monstrosity), and it's occurred to me that I don't even know for sure that that's the way I ought to go, so this time I'm trying a different approach.

After a while I encounter a tribe of Orcs. Hiding in a cave is liable to take me to where I keep dying, so I try to outrun the Orcs instead. It doesn't work, and I wind up surrounded by Orcs with projectile weapons. Their leader tells me to surrender or die, so I pick the less lethal option. Uggamonggo, chief of the Orcs of the Black Scorpion, has me disarmed and tied to a pole for easy transportation. He wants to interrogate me, but not before resolving the dispute over whether his tribe or the Orcs of the Big Boulder are superior.

During what remains of the day, I'm carried part of the way across the mountains. When the Orcs make camp, I get offered a choice of chores. Cleaning boots sounds like the sort of task that could carry a humiliation-based Luck penalty, so I pick helping prepare supper. Still lacking any Sleeping Draught, I'm unable to drug the food. After the meal (about which, the less said, the better), I am manacled to a rack, as the Orc Shaman thinks I've been sent to spy on the tribe, so Uggamonggo wants to know my business. I can't see any good reason not to tell the truth, though I keep quiet about the Shadow Warriors in case the Orcs are as sceptical as I was prior to encountering the Warriors.

The moment I mention being a mercenary, Uggamonggo has me released and gives me some money, 'employing' me to assist in the forthcoming battle. Which turns out to be more forthcoming than he thought, as I've only just pocketed the gold when the Orcs of the Big Boulder launch a surprise attack. Forced or not, a contract is a contract, and even if I did try to escape, I doubt that the Orcs of the Big Boulder would respect my non-combatant status, so I fight. The rival Orc chief sets his champion on me, but I have little trouble defeating him, even though I'm bare-handed again.

Suspecting that Uggamonggo will insist on extending my contract if his tribe wins, and certain that the other tribe will kill me if they win, I decide that I've done enough to earn what I was paid, and make a strategic withdrawal. And this part of the book isn't as well-structured as it could be, as my escape attempt is semi-interrupted by the Orcs of the Big Boulder's launching the surprise attack that started the battle I was fleeing. I don't hang around to see if it happens again.

My flight brings me to the remains of Karnstein. Not only did I fail to protect Mendokan and his friends, I also arrived too late to save his home. A dying villager tells me that Voivod has gone to raise an army from the dead, and gives me a map. A slightly convoluted process of working out just how late I am ensues: I did seek the Hermit, but didn't visit the Burning Balrog Tavern, and I got captured by the Orcs of the Black Scorpion, which means that I have time to visit two of the locations on the map (which shows at least three places with ample corpse-raising potential).

Or rather, I would have time to visit two if I knew how to visit them, but for some reason, that's not something I'm able to do. This is doubtless a consequence of my having failed to meet the man of numbers as advised by Jack-in-the-Green, though it's far from clear why not having encountered him should prevent me from, for example, just following the road south-west until I reach Fenmar Graveyard. Maybe the encounter I missed would explain why having it is essential for moving on from Karnstein, but without that explanation, the book is effectively telling me 'You have failed in your mission because I say so'.

Not a very satisfactory ending. And if that wretched dream maze hadn't kept killing me in the past, it wouldn't have taken me this many attempts to realise that I've been going wrong at an earlier stage of the adventure. While I wouldn't call Shadow Warriors a bad gamebook, it remains my least favourite of Mr. Hand's FF books.