Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Things Which Act Against Everything We Believe In

Black Vein Prophecy wasn't the only Fighting Fantasy book to wind up on the sale table in Brown's Books. On another visit to the shop, I saw a reduced copy of Moonrunner, the last of Stephen Hand's FF books. I didn't buy it, though, as I'd not had any related curiosity simmering away in the depths of my mind for more than half a decade, and the cover illustration was not sufficiently enticing to make me want to look inside.

Around five years later, when I'd properly got back into collecting gamebooks, I started using eBay to try and track down the ones I was most keen to acquire. I came across a listing for Spectral Stalkers, which was one of the FF books I most wanted, so I bid on it. The seller had also put up a job lot of the Sorcery! series, but I'd already got one of those books, and wasn't interested in getting an extra copy, so I didn't place a bid on the set. My bid on Stalkers was successful, and nobody bid on the Sorcery! books, so I asked the seller if he'd be willing to sell me just the titles I wanted. He agreed, and also sent me a list of his other spare gamebooks in case there was anything else he could sell me. There was a copy of Moonrunner on the list, and as I was now committed to getting the whole series (by then I'd already added Sky Lord to my collection, and that ranked a lot lower in my estimation than any FF book I merely hadn't read), I asked for that as well. The whole sale went via eBay, so I wasn't breaking any rules against off-site purchases.

As I recall, my first attempt at the book ended when my attempts at pursuing an assassin led to my winding up trapped in a carriage that drove into a river, where I drowned. That's not the only trap that claimed the life of one of my characters: the villain of Moonrunner is a sneaky so-and-so.

I don't think high stats are as essential to victory here as in most of the later FF books, so I'm taking a chance and not customising my character. And I wind up with exactly the set-up I'd have picked if I'd allocated dice, namely:
Skill 12
Stamina 15
Luck 9
That's not necessarily a bad thing - if either of the Stamina dice had wound up going on Skill, I might have had cause to regret taking the dice as they fell.

In this book I also have Special Skills, and can choose four from a list of nine. I'll go for Con, Disguise, Lock Picking and Tracking. The last time I played this adventure online, lack of Tracking caused me to pick the wrong gate and get killed by something nasty and invisible, and I don't want to make that mistake again.

The adventure starts with a clandestine meeting, at which some surprisingly awkward info-dumping takes place. Awkward because my character is a veteran of the War of the Four Kingdoms, who has since made a name for himself by tracking down and capturing war criminals, and yet Guard Marshal Bennet, who is employing me because of these facts, tells me all about the War and the greatest war criminal of all, and I just sit there while he tells me stuff he knows I already know. Surprisingly so because in his previous FF book, Mr. Hand used quotations from in-universe reference books to provide the reader with background detail that would already be familiar to the character, so why not use the same trick here?

Anyway, Bennet has called me in because Karam Gruul, the worst of the war criminals, alleged to have been killed in the Last Battle, has resurfaced. His precise whereabouts is unknown, but he's somewhere here in the town of Blackhaven, and he must be up to something serious to have come out of hiding at all. I accept the job of bringing him to justice without hesitation, as I have personal reasons for wanting to see Gruul pay for his crimes. Personal reasons which will go unexplained until a dramatically appropriate moment, but their existence is established from the start.

Bennet goes on to explain that Gruul is probably involved with a secret society known as the Cabal of the Werewolf. He suggests a few leads to follow up: Matra Ouspenskaya, an inmate at the local asylum, claims to have been a member of the Cabal, there's a tavern where they're purported to hold meetings, and paid informant Silas Entador is likely to have heard if Gruul is in contact with Blackhaven's criminal contingent. Bennet also mentions that he thinks one of his men may be a traitor, so he hasn't told any of them about me. He mentions some things for me in his desk drawer, but is interrupted by a dagger in the back. Someone must have thrown it through the window - which is quite a feat, considering how many floors up we are.

From a certain perspective, Bennet's dying wish was for me to have the letter and money in the drawer. I choose to honour that wish by heading straight for the desk and using my Lock Picking ability to bypass the elaborate puzzle lock on the drawer. In addition to the gold and the letter identifying me as a relative of Ouspenskaya, there's a page from Bennet's diary, mentioning that Entador has identified a Guard named Conrad Zaar as a spy for the Cabal.

The door bursts open and three Guards enter. Predictably, they assume that I'm responsible for Bennet's death, and from their Captain's words I gather that Zaar has set me up. Since Bennet didn't tell any of his men that he was calling me in, I won't achieve much by identifying myself, but my Con ability saves me from having to fight the Guards, who are on the same side as I, if only they knew it. I claim to be in pursuit of the 'Vampiric Shapeshifter' that killed Bennet, and warn the Guards that it could now be disguised as one of them. This shifts each Guard's attention from me to his companions for a moment or two, which is enough of a distraction to enable me to make my getaway.

I think it's time I had a little word with Mr. Zaar, and head for his home. He lives in a mill, but isn't much like Jonathan Creek. Except for his aptitude for devising tricks, such as the portcullis that blocks off the entrance just after I go in. I have a look around, finding some food and a leaflet issued by a group called the Eternal Fraternity of the Rosy Chalice. Either there's a message hidden in the text, or it's been written by the local equivalent of the Time Cube man. Still, the mad blatherings include the name of the tavern mentioned by Bennet, so there may be something of significance buried in there.

If there is, it's too well-buried for a quick analysis to dig it up, so I head down into the cellar, which contains a gargoyle. Not the sentient kind found in some parts of Titan, but this isn't just a bit of ornamental stonework either. Its eyes light up, and a voice commands Zaar to report. I say nothing, and whoever is speaking begins to suspect that I'm not Zaar, but if I say anything, that may confirm their suspicions, so I climb back up to ground level.

The portcullis is still there, so my only remaining option is to check out the loft. It contains nothing of interest, but there is a door leading out onto a balcony. This balcony is right behind the mill's sails, and Zaar is waiting for me on it. He attacks, but isn't much of an opponent, and soon plummets to his death in the mill workings. Lightning blasts through the mill roof, hitting his body and bringing it back to life. Donning a facemask in recognition of his new status as slasher movie-style nigh-unstoppable homicidal maniac, he arms himself with a machete and starts to climb back up. I try to knock him off the ladder with a thrown lantern, and merely succeed in setting him and the mill on fire. A sudden gout of flame consumes the ladder, and Zaar plunges into the inferno below. It's high time I was somewhere else, and there's only one remotely safe-looking way down: to jump from the balcony and try to catch one of the mill's sails on its downward sweep. This tactic works, and I hurry away before the blazing mill collapses.

Following that lead wasn't massively helpful, so I try another, and head for Craven Asylum. Charmingly, this is one of Blackhaven's primary tourist attractions, and it's rumoured that, for the right price, the proprietors will waive such formalities as checking that a potential inmate is actually insane before admitting them. The warden who opens the door to me is a Troll, who pretends he can read the letter and takes me to see deputy director Crabb.

Crabb reads the letter and explains that his superior, Doktor Welsch, is unable to see me himself because he's so busy. I make note of the fact that the trouble that's been occupying the Doktor's attention is in Cumbleside - there may be something worth checking out there. I ask to see Ouspenskaya, declining the offer of refreshments (I'm at full Stamina as it is, and the design on the medallion Crabb wears looks enough like a wolf (or, more to the point, a werewolf) to make me wary). Crabb warns me that Ouspenskaya is paranoid and delusional, apologises for being unable to accompany me, and tells me to follow the signs marked 'Nosh'.

I proceed from his office into a hall. It has five exits, each bearing a sign. There is one marked 'Nosh', but one of my earlier attempts at the book failed because I went straight there and missed a helpful encounter from elsewhere in the asylum, so I'll try another door or two first. 'Wipefeet' is the door through which I just came, and 'Big Trubbull' may well be exactly what it says, so it comes down to a choice between 'Big Laffs' and 'Fat Maggots'. I've never actually investigated the latter before, so this time I'll take a chance and check it out.

Now that's impressively bad taste - it leads to the asylum graveyard. Which is haunted. The ghost tells me to avenge the dead and free the insane, then disappears. I return to the hall and try 'Big Laffs', which leads to a vestibule with a barred door. Beyond that door is the vault that houses the asylum's inmates. Given the conditions here, they'd actually be better off under Care in the Community. Four of the closest ones attack me, but I have no trouble fighting them off. The other inmates cower away from me - except for one very lucid-seeming young man who gives me a locket containing portraits of himself (in better days) and a woman, and asks me to find the woman and give her the locket.

Returning to the hall (without barring the door behind me), I now turn my attention to the reason I initially came here. Behind the 'Nosh' door is a spiral staircase leading down to a cell, which contains the dying Ouspenskaya and something so horrifying that the author can't bring himself to say what it is. A couple of possibilities occur to me, one inspired by the sign on the door, the other by what I know of the final encounter to be had in the asylum. Neither the sort of thing I want to dwell on at length.

I tell Ouspenskaya who I am, and tend her wounds to the best of my ability. She tells me that the Cabal are all war criminals, and the Fraternity is a front for them, then expires with the word 'tavern' on her lips. Turning to go back upstairs, I see Crabb and a large group of armed wardens. Either Crabb is a member of the Cabal, and not pleased to have me investigating, or he's really strict about enforcing the 'no non-family members outside visiting hours' rule, as he has the Trolls drag me upstairs, where they lock me into a darkened, but not unoccupied, room.

As the sound of dragging feet draws closer, a man with a lantern enters from an adjacent room. The light reveals that I'm in a laboratory, but doesn't immediately show who - or what - was moving towards me. The man with the lantern introduces himself as Doktor Welsch, says he hopes I wiped my feet before coming in, and then raises the lantern in order to show me the laboratory's other occupant - Doktor Kauderwelsch. Sort of. After she was killed by some tax-dodging troublemaker, her son, cunningly concealing his true identity by using the pseudonym Fronkensteen Welsch, saved her brain. He has housed it in a new body built from the remains of assorted inmates, but now intends to transplant it into my much more fit and healthy body.

Unlike some, he knows when to abandon a long-standing project in favour of a superior new option.

The Kauderwelsch monster attacks, and while I am engaged in what the book marvellously describes as 'a life-or-death struggle for [my] cranial capacity', the door bursts open to admit a horde of disgruntled inmates, who dismember Welsch's creation. Unconvinced that the inmates will make much of a distinction between friend and foe when they turn their attention to the living, I flee as Bates Welsch attempts to salvage bits of his mother, pathetically exclaiming his filial affection.

Bennet, the Fraternity's leaflet and Ouspenskaya's dying words have all pointed me towards the Last Octopus tavern, so that's where I head next. The sun is starting to come up by the time I get to the docklands area where the tavern is located. Probably a good thing, as this is the part of Blackhaven where a mysterious nocturnal killer known as the Shocker prowls the streets, blowing raspberries terrifying people to death. At this point I have to check for code words, and since the two on the list that I do have were gained as a consequence of attracting the gargoyle's attention at the mill and unleashing bedlam at the asylum, this is clearly where I pay the penalty for being less than discreet in my enquiries.

A man calls to me from an alley. He wears long robes and a veil, and offers a substantial reward if I join him and cease interfering in his plans. A rather obvious trap, which means there's probably a not-so-obvious trap prepared in case I try pretending to fall for it in the hope of surprising him, so I walk straight past and carry on into the tavern. A little awkwardly, just before I go in, the book tells me that if I have the appropriate Special Skill and have found the right costume, I can disguise myself as a noble from Brice, the Kingdom from which Gruul and the Cabal come. As I haven't found the costume, it doesn't matter, but if I did, would it not have made more sense to disguise myself before heading to the tavern, rather than trying a quick-change routine on the doorstep? Especially as I'm hurrying away from the suspicious character in the alley, who could potentially make things terminally awkward for me while I was fiddling with buttons.

Despite the early hour, the place is busy. There's a game going on at one table, so I attempt to join in as a way of mingling with the crowd. It turns out to be a shell game, only instead of the usual walnut shells and pea, it uses thimbles and a gold coin (must be big thimbles or a tiny coin). Wondering if my Con Special Skill will help me see through the trick, I wager a couple of coins. No, it's Sleight of Hand that would eliminate the random element here, so I must rely on Luck. I succeed at the roll anyway, and thus avoid losing sight of the correct thimble. The old man running the game packs up in disgust, but the onlookers are delighted to see someone beat him. I've not exactly been unobtrusive, but at least the impression I've made is a good one.

Moving to the bar, I strike up a conversation with the landlady, and name-drop the Fraternity. My Con Skill comes in handy here, enabling me to convince here that I'm an incognito Brician noble. She gives me a brooch depicting a chalice on a rose, and tells me to leave now, but come back at midnight. Sticking around now she's said that would be counterproductive, so I make my exit, and am immediately accosted by a woman with a monocle. She says I've endangered both of us by going into the tavern, then tells me to accompany her, claiming that now we're together, we should have a better chance of evading Gruul's lackeys. Her willingness to use his name suggests that she's not working for him, so I do as directed.

When we reach her lodgings, she insists that I get some rest. Once I've recovered from the night's activities, the woman (indicated by the illustration to look a lot like Margaret Rutherford) gives me some food and money, and introduces herself as Professor Van Heldenghast, a fellow Gruul-hunter. She explains that our mutual enemy uses a mystic art known as Notura, which has enabled him to live for at least three centuries and would, if fully mastered, provide him with the means to conquer the world. However, half a dozen Notura-steeped artefacts that were recovered from his Tower of Inquisition following his previous defeat are now scattered around Blackhaven, and could provide me with protection against his powers. I have nine hours in which to collect as many of them as possible.

Past attempts at the book have taught me that there's no sure-fire way of knowing which of the items I seek I'll need, and that some of the different kinds of harm they can avert are a lot more serious than others. If I need but don't have the one that can be acquired in Gallows Square, failure is a certainty, so my first port of call is pretty obvious.

As the name suggests, Gallows Square is where Blackhaven's criminals are hanged (when they're hanged rather than given positions of authority). Those who are executed are left on display as a not-very-effective deterrent to would-be lawbreakers, and one of the most recent batch to be executed has the item I seek: the wooden hand he had fitted to replace the hand he lost the last time he got caught stealing. I can't simply take it, though, as there are a couple of Man-Orc Provosts in the square, supposedly protecting the corpses from ghoulish souvenir-hunters, though right now they're more interested in tormenting a beggar. I could try taking the hand while they're distracted, but I think I'd rather rely on the gift of the gab than the quickness of the hand. Besides, my interrupting the Provosts' 'fun' enables their victim to get away, and thwarting bullies is usually a good thing to do. The Provosts don't see it that way, of course, but when I claim to be the City Physician, here to collect a specimen of an impressively advanced case of Bone-Rot, they conclude that interfering with me could be bad for their health, and retire to a safe distance while I help myself to the hand.

Mind you, that's only the first stage of what I must do to get the artefact. The hand still needs activating, and to get that done I shall have to visit Mawn Pretoragus the Necromancer. He lives on the perpetually misty Divil's Lane, in a house that seems to fidget. There is no response when I knock on the undulating door, and when I try the grotesque handle, the door won't open. My lock-picking talents are untroubled by the building's nebulous nature, though, and I soon step through into a darkened area.

A Vincent Price look-alike looms out of the darkness, announcing that Van Heldenghast has offered knowledge in return for the service he will provide. Inserting a flaming wick into each finger of the wooden hand (which he just has - I hadn't even taken it out of my backpack), Pretoragus warns me not to follow him through the Door Beyond, and goes away. I keep very still until he returns, looking drained. Giving me the Hand of Glory, he tells me to go, and I don't hesitate. One item down, but acquiring it has taken up three of the nine hours I had.

Next I head for the Wayside Shrine of Belthegor to try and retrieve the marble mask that's embedded in one of the walls. Unspecified unpleasant fates have befallen everyone who's tried and failed, but the Professor thinks that the cryptic runes on the Shrine may provide the solution. The route there crosses a busy bridge, and in the midst of the hubbub, someone presses a note into my hand, summoning me to an urgent rendezvous in another part of town on Cabal-related business. The lack of a signature makes me suspicious, so I continue on my way.

At the Shrine, my Tracking Skill draws my attention to the fact that five sets of fresh footprints lead to the mask - and none lead away from it. Ominous. More ominous, in fact, than not having Tracking and wondering what I've failed to notice on account of lacking it, as happened one of the previous times I played the book. Not that I shall be sharing the fate of the people who left those footprints, as the runes are a pretty straightforward substitution cypher - and the fact that the name 'Belthegor' includes the letters 't-h-e' makes decryption that bit easier. The first time I got to this part of the adventure, I'd already decoded around half of the message by the time I realised that there are clues to make it even easier in the incomplete magic squares (well, that's what they looked like until their true function became apparent) carved around the mask. Solving the puzzle enables me to get the Mask, but the trip to and from the Shrine has taken up another two hours.

If the distances between locations made any difference to the amount of time it takes to acquire items, I might vary the order in which I collect the next however many I can fit into the remaining hours. That's one complication Mr. Hand chose not to have in the book, though (and having experienced some of the headaches that can result from trying to keep track of such factors while working on my unfinished gamebook The Great Blacksand Robbery, I don't criticise him for making that choice), so I'll let other factors determine my choice of third item.

Gustav Hollmann's Chamber of Horrors is a wax museum dedicated to the macabre, and it seems that in among the replicas of the nasty and notorious there's one genuine item, the Angevin Shroud (a name which suggests that Mr. Hand might not have enjoyed covering the English monarchs of the second half of the 12th century in history lessons). There's a large crowd of morbid thrill-seekers trying to get in (perhaps in part because the Asylum isn't running the usual tours today). Trying to sneak in without paying the entrance fee looks like a lot more trouble than it's worth, so I join the queue and pay the 3 Gold Pieces.

The tour is not particularly enjoyable: the proprietor (who'd almost certainly have been played by Michael Ripper if this adventure had been a Hammer film) and his exhibition have both seen better days, and there's one annoying tourist who keeps boasting about how he'd be a match for any of the fiends who inspired the wax effigies. Eventually we reach the shroud, which is purported to have acquired miraculous powers after being used to wrap the decapitated corpse of a Necrophage. Mind you, Hollmann is obviously sceptical, so I'm able to buy the 'worthless piece of tat' from him for a reasonable price once the show is over.

As I'm heading for the exit with my new acquisition, I hear a scream, and smell charred flesh. In the foyer I discover that some of the others who took the tour with me have had far more of a thrill than they anticipated. Remember Conrad Zaar, the near-indestructible maniac guard last seen plunging into the flames at Weathern Mill? Well, the 'near-indestructible' aspect means that he survived the fire, and now he's out for revenge. He's a better fighter than he was before I first killed him, but the Hand of Glory helps me out a little, inducing drowsiness in my opponent. It drains a little of my Stamina to produce this effect, but nowhere near as much as I'd have lost fighting a clear-headed Conrad.

Once I've felled Zaar, the non-slaughtered tourists rush into the room, some of them congratulating me, others calling for the guards, and that braggart claiming that he could have beaten the maniac with just a lump of wood. A claim that is immediately put to the lie as Zaar revives again and buries his machete in the arrogant twit's back. The other onlookers are dumb enough to attack the unstoppable killer en masse rather than making a swift departure, as I do. If Hollmann survives this, he's going to have a whole new attraction for lovers of the macabre.

All that only took an hour, so I can continue to add to my Notura collection. I head north to the remains of the Olde Gaol. The 'invincible' Demothrax Argolis was buried alive there, bound with a magical chain, three years ago, shortly before the earthquake that destroyed the place. I need to find a way of getting the chain without unleashing Argolis to cause mayhem (and research tachyonics), and the only help I have for figuring out how to do this is an obscure rhyme.

The end of the chain is sticking out of the ground. I give it an experimental tug, and a high-backed chair erupts from the floor, with Argolis chained to it. Her invincibility evidently doesn't prevent decomposition, though her semi-decayed condition doesn't appear to make her any less powerful. Nevertheless, I pull the chain again, and it comes free - as does Argolis. She's one of those ungrateful entities that choose to try and kill whoever frees them, and at this point I have a slight issue with the writing of the book. According to that rhyme, now Argolis is free, I should 'Turn not your face/Nor bind, nor strike,' and I am now offered a choice between turning and fleeing, trying to bind her with the chain again, or attacking. How I'm supposed to fight the Demothrax without striking her is unclear, but that's not quite as self-evidently impossible as turning and fleeing without turning, or binding her without binding, so attacking is the least bad option here. As in the last fight, the Hand helps me, and I manage to subdue Argolis for long enough to hurl her back into the pit from which she emerged. It promptly closes up, and the weight of earth on top of Argolis proves just as effective a restraint as the chain did.

I still have one hour, so I finish off this phase of the adventure by paying a visit to Kiennar's Curiosity Shop. When I mention who sent me here, Kiennar nervously produces a phial of dried blood - all that remains of one of the Vampire Lords of Vannan, with whom my character has some sort of history, mentioned in passing in the book's Introduction. Despite being nervous about the phial's contents, Kiennar smirks as he mentions how much he wants for it - a fair bit more than the money Van Heldenghast gave me. I can afford it, though, so I hand over the money. Kiennar then offers to sell me a cross and a stake for protection, and I have more than enough cash left for both, so I buy them too.

That's my nine hours up, so I return to Van Heldenghast's. She gives me a meal, tells me to spy on the Fraternity meeting at the Last Octopus, and lets me know that she's leaving Blackhaven, as she's done everything she can to help. I set off to the tavern, and hear yelling from close by, indicating that the Shocker has struck again. Investigating could take long enough to cause me to miss what I'm here for, so I stay close to the tavern.

Soon afterwards, several horse-drawn coaches arrive and unload passengers. One of these is the woman depicted in the locket the lucid asylum inmate gave me, so I do as the man requested. Upon learning that her husband was imprisoned in the asylum, she realises that Gruul has been misleading the Cabal, and tells me that he's gone to the ruins of his Tower of Inquisition, at a place named Hope's End. The Fraternity meeting is obviously just a distraction, or at best a sideshow, so I leave the tavern and set off to Hope's End.

Apart from the remains of the Tower, there's not a lot there - just rocky desolation and the occasional pool of steaming brown sludge. I'm only around a kilometre from the ruins when I hear a lot of horses drawing near. In case the riders are more of Gruul's followers, I hide behind a rock. Good thing too, as practically the entire Cabal troops past. Once they've gone by, I continue on my way, and as the ruins come into view, I see that a vast horde of zombies has been assembled to rebuild the Tower, under the direction of whip-wielding Orcs. The whips strike me as superfluous, as I'm pretty sure that zombies feel no pain, but I doubt that the Orcs would appreciate my input on the topic.

Giving myself a convincing pallor with some whitish dust, I impersonate a zombie in order to get to the Tower without attracting any attention. At lest, that's the plan. One of the Orcs lashes me with its whip and orders me to carry a large block of stone to the Tower. The exertion of doing as directed takes its toll on my Stamina, but at least I reach my objective without an alarm being raised.

Two gates lead inside. My Tracking ability enables me to spot which one the riders who recently came this way used, and I emulate their example - this is where not having Tracking got me killed on a previous attempt at the book, as I didn't (and still don't) have the item needed to defeat what lies beyond the other gate. A quick meal before I go through, to restore my Stamina, and then I head on in.

The Cabal members fill a hall. Up on a high balcony is Radu, a Magus I could have encountered if I'd followed a different route to get this far. Since I didn't, it's a little odd that I know who he is, but that's a pretty minor niggle. Radu is showing off Grul's Ethereal Projector, a Notura-powered WMD which he plans to use to massacre the inhsabitants of my homeland's capital city. Needless to say, I do not approve, and start shambling towards the pillars supporting the balcony.

Somehow the landlady from the Last Octopus sees through my disguise, and alerts her fellow Cabalists to my presence, but not before I've got close enough to the balcony to spot the secret door beneath it. I hurry through and, finding no way of locking it, dash up the spiral stairs behind it. My pursuers aren't fast enough to keep me from reaching Radu, and I seize him and demand that he take me to Gruul. He laughs, swells up, and bursts, thereby revealing himself to be just a disguise that Gruul (who bears a regrettable resemblance a Fu Manchu-style villain) was wearing. This twist might actually have some impact if I'd known of Radu for more than the past minute or so, but as things stand, it's all rather pointless.

Is it worse when the dodgy ethnic stereotype is the unnecessary costume?

Gruul now proceeds to use his Notura against me. As I have five of the six protective Wards, I shouldn't be in too much trouble here, but it depends on how the dice fall. Gruul starts by hurling a bolt of energy, which is deflected by the Shroud. As I move closer, he creates a Force Wall that keeps me from getting to him, but the Mask keeps me from being harmed by it. Things then get a bit awkward, as the book doesn't address the issue of rolling the same number more than once while determining Gruul's attacks. Does he recast spells that have already failed once? And are the Wards still effective against recast magic - both the Shroud and the Mask can be used to beneficial effect in circumstances other than this sequence, but each can only be used once, so does that mean that they can only protect me from one Notura-based attack? Well, regardless of whether he cast Force Wall once or three times, he expends his remaining Notura on a mental assault from which I am shielded by the Hand. Out of power, he goes for the Ethereal Projector, but as he activates it, I push him aside and turn the device on the Cabal, destroying most of them.

Taking Gruul prisoner, I drag him outdoors, tie him to a horse, and ride away from the remaining Cabalists and the zombies. Along the way, I explain why I'm so intent on defeating him: back in the war, I was captured by the Brician forces, and Gruul experimented on me to turn me into a nocturnal beast under his control. While a cure was found for the physical transformation, I still have nightmares about the experience. Upon learning that I was one of his 'Moonrunners', Gruul attempts to reactivate whatever conditioning he used on me, but I'm strong enough to resist (and the Hand prevented him from creating a hacker-style 'back door' in my mind), and give him a slap to discourage further such misbehaviour.

The remnants of the Cabal are gaining on us, but before they can catch up, we meet a patrol of my compatriots. The patrol are outnumbered, and the captain asks me to help, but I can't risk allowing Gruul to fall back into the hands of the Cabal. There's nothing in the text to say that I can't hand over any still-working Wards of Notura to help even the odds, though, so I'm saying that I let him have the chain, which can be used to immobilise one opponent - not much help, but better than nothing.

However the patrol's fight with the last of the Cabalists goes, I don't face any further trouble while taking Gruul to face justice. He is tried, found guilty, and sent to prison for the remainder of his wretched existence. My work done, I quit the bounty-hunting business and do my best to enjoy a peaceful retirement with my family. At least until Conrad turns up again...

For the most part, Moonrunner is a very enjoyable horror/fantasy adventure. There are plenty of viable paths through the book, and a number of suitably nasty-looking encounters I missed in this playthrough (including a trip to a plague village, a chance to go grave-robbing with the local equivalents of Burke and Hare, and a run-in with an anthropomorphic serpentine assassin straight out of The Reptile). Towards the end, though, the book does become weaker. I've already covered the potential irrelevance of the twist concerning Radu's identity, and the unclear rules on rerolled numbers during Gruul's Notura onslaught. Beyond that, the concealment of the 'Gruul turned me into a monster' aspect of my character's backstory until the very end of the book is a bit of a cheat, and while I can see the dilemma Mr. Hand was trying to create with the final choice - sacrifice some good men or risk allowing Gruul to escape and resume his destructive activities - it comes across as being rather anticlimactic in the book. And the lesser of two evils is still an evil, so for me, at least, the happy ending is soured by the necessity of abandoning the patrolmen to their fate.

By the way, if there is an actual concealed message somewhere in the Fraternity leaflet, and anyone has ever figured out how to find it, I'd be interested to know about it.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

That's a Very Dumb Thing You Did Just Then

Another April 1st, another not-so-serious Tunnels & Trolls adventure. Rick Loomis' Solo for the Intellectually Challenged (aka Solitaire for the Intellectually Challenged aka Solo Adventure for the Intellectually Challenged aka Solitaire Adventure for the Intellectually Challenged - all four titles occur once within the book) is one of three adventures included in book 24 of the Flying Buffalo solo adventures range. As with every other post-20 adventure, I got it on eBay.

In the introduction, Mr. Loomis points out that most gamebooks penalise players who make stupid decisions, often with fatal consequences for the character. As this is liable to put off that proportion of the player base that likes making stupid decisions, he wrote SftIC to cater to them. Practically every option offered within the adventure is blatantly idiotic, and a lot of the fun of playing is in finding out how the outcome will be logical(ish) but nowhere near as catastrophic as you'd expect. The first time I played it, my adventure ended when I drank the contents of a bottle marked with a skull and crossbones, as a result of which my character was transformed into a pirate and went off in search of a more ocean-based adventure.

Not that it's likely to matter, but I'll roll up my stats anyway.
Strength: 9
Intelligence: 8
Luck: 11
Constitution: 9
Dexterity: 8
Charisma: 11
Speed: 4
Not a bad fit for this challenge, if not quite as sub-par as would be ideal.

My character is a sheep-herding peasant somewhere in the Blue Mountains. One morning I happen upon a cave, with a sign over it. It warns that there's a Dragon in the cave, and anybody who enters will die. This is clearly my chance to become a Great Hero, so I enter the cave. Someone has walled off its depths with rocks and mortar, but a rusty door is set into the wall. On the door is a glowing lock. I reach for it, and feel a strange tingle in my hand. The hairs on the back of my hand stand up, and the tingling grows in intensity as I get closer to the lock. There's clearly something very interesting going on here, so I grab hold of the lock to find out more.

It comes off in my hand. I pocket it, as there's probably a wizard somewhere who'll pay good money for metal that does such interesting things. The door opens with an appropriate creaking noise, and I see only darkness beyond. They (whoever 'they' are) say it's always darkest right before the dawn, so walking into the dark should make it get light, right?

I trip over a bone, quite fortuitously, as it turns out, since that causes the blow aimed at my head by some unseen assailant to miss. In the course of attempting to get back up, I manage to stumble into a hole in the ground, which turns out to be the mouth of a chute leading to a brightly lit cavern. The cavern is full of treasure, but after grabbing a few precious stones, I get distracted from the valuables by other features. There's the potion bottle I mentioned before, a rope with a sign reading 'alarm', and a scorched and bloodstained altar festooned with gargoyles and arcane runes, which looks as if it could be a handy stepping stone for getting the glowing sword with the letters 'E.V.I.L.' on the hilt that hangs above it.

An alarmed Dragon will probably get careless, so I pull the rope in the hope of improving my chances in the fight that must be imminent. But I have misinterpreted the function of the rope, which summons a yellow-skinned, blue-haired creature known as Larm, who offers to grant me a wish. Though tempted to laugh at his hairstyle, I decide that this is too good an opportunity to waste, and wish for a sandwich. Not just any sandwich, though. One with roast beef  in. Larm grants my wish (and takes my lunch).

Now that I have the sandwich, I clamber onto the altar and take the sword. A spark of static causes me to overbalance and fall off just before a bolt of electricity strikes the altar, and the sword falls beside me. A tall, muscular man with a beard and armour introduces himself as Edgar Victor Ichabod Lodz, and tells me to hand over his sword. I hand it to him, hilt first so as to keep him from thinking I'm attacking, and thereby discover that the blade is sharp enough to cut my hand.

Lodz tells me there's a bottle of healing potion behind me, but I ignore that and demand a reward for finding his sword for him. He offers to cast a spell that will give me good health for the rest of my life, but I have to close my eyes and turn round before he'll cast it. I tell him I'm not interested in such a dull reward, and he laughs and walks off.

Five guards with crossbows and spears burst into the cavern and call me an intruder. I offer to share my sandwich with them. It's got roast beef in, you know? They find this highly amusing - so much so that they forget to frisk me for stolen valuables before forcibly ejecting me from the cave. So I never did get to fight that Dragon, but I end my first adventure as this character sufficiently well-off that I can buy some decent adventuring gear and continue my endeavours to become a Great Hero some other day. You have been warned.