Friday, 31 October 2014

Grim, Ungainly, Ghastly, Gaunt, and Ominous

I received the fifth Wizards, Warriors and You book, Lynn Beach's The Haunted Castle of Ravencurse, as part of the same gift that included book three. While replaying it for this blog may revive old memories, at the moment I recall little beyond the basic premise and a couple of ways the adventure can end badly for the Wizard. Those deaths won't come into play here, as I'm playing the odd-numbered books as the Warrior - which does at least mean that this playthrough won't end with my character being turned into a zombie while hallucinating King Henry atop a giant blue butterfly. It makes more sense in context.

After the usual introduction, the book starts with the Wizard and Warrior at the foot of the cliff on which the eponymous castle stands. There's then a flashback to explain what has brought them here: all the wars in which King Henry's kingdom has been embroiled in recent years have depleted the royal coffers to a hazardous extent. Rather than raise taxes again, he wants to try and solve this economic crisis with the treasures of Ravencurse.

Around a century ago, the wealthy and evil Ravencurse line came to an abrupt end when Mad Morwenna, the head of the family, created a host of monsters that killed the family and most of their servants. The one survivor sought refuge with King Henry's ancestors, for whom he provided a partial map of the Castle of Ravencurse, with details of the treasures within and the horrors guarding them. So far, nobody has dared do anything with the map, but the Wizard and Warrior must now brave the castle's dangers for the sake of the loot it contains.

As I indicated a few paragraphs ago, I shall be choosing the rĂ´le of the Warrior here, so I must now choose three weapons to go with my sword. I pick the Battle-Axe, the Morning Star and the Dagger, as I have a vague impression that projectile weapons aren't good things to use here.

The map is pretty basic, but the guide to what may be found in the castle is a bit more detailed. We seek the Crimson Crown (which provides the wearer with more financial insight than a degree in Economics) and the Bottomless Basket, which provides unlimited wealth for the non-greedy (who would, by definition, be fine with more limited wealth, but magic and irony do often go together quite well). The monstrous guards include a Troll, a Cyclops, Zombies, a Spider of Doom, a Two-Headed Wolf and the Ghost of Mad Morwenna (which must have manifested mighty quickly - otherwise the only survivor of the massacre that ended her corporeal existence wouldn't know about it).

The cliff has finger- and toeholds etched into it, and as I have substantial mountaineering experience, I lead the way, with the Wizard roped to me. After a while we reach a ledge, and I spot a cave leading into the cliff. It could be a way into the castle, which would eliminate the need for further climbing. Or it might just be the Troll's lair, but I'm prepared to take that risk.

It is the Troll's lair. It has also been magic-proofed by Mad Morwenna, so the Wizard won't be of any assistance here. The Troll claims to be a master swordsman, and while the boast appears unlikely, I would be unwise to just assume that it's a lie. What is obvious is that the Troll is pretty slow-moving, so I decide to go for a rapid attack, using my lightest weapon - the Dagger. The resultant battle reveals the Troll to have been speaking the truth about his swordsmanship, but by dodging a lot and inflicting lots of small wounds, I madden him enough that his prowess is lost in the rage. Eventually he provides an opening for a coup de grace, which I take.

At the back of the cave are stairs leading up. They take us to the top of the cliff, but outside the castle. According to the map, there are two entrances. The front door is twice the height of a man, and has no handle on the outside, only a massive knocker and a sign insisting that guests be announced. The kitchen door is small and shadowy, and gives off an odour of decay. I seek the Wizard's opinion, but he's too busy sensing evil and guarding against malicious magic to make any decisions.

I pick the kitchen door just to save us the hassle of going back round to the front of the castle. It hasn't been used in a long while, and creaks 'like a thousand lost souls crying in the darkness'. The kitchen is dusty and cobwebbed, and has exits leading to the cellar (Crimson Crown and Zombies) and ballroom (Spider and Bottomless Basket).

I choose the cellar first. The Crown gives off a red glow that is the only illumination down there. The King of the Zombies approaches, a red-eyed raven on its shoulder. The raven screams, and the Zombie says that after three screams the poisoned-taloned raven will attack. I suggest that the Wizard Shift Shape into the form of a second raven and steal the Crown while I deal with King Zombie and the Ravencurse raven. He thinks that a bad idea, and advises using Invisibility to escape. We won't get the Crown by escaping, but being invisible might help me in the fight, so I agree to go with that spell. Our disappearance sufficiently disconcerts the Zombie that I can decapitate him, but the raven isn't so easily baffled. It swoops to the attack just as the spell wears off, and the poison puts an end to this fundraising endeavour.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Fading Memories Blending Into Dull Tableaux

I'm not sure when I originally became aware that Puffin Books had marked the 10th anniversary of the publication of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain by getting Ian Livingstone to pen a sequel, the imaginatively titled Return to Firetop Mountain. During one of my nineties sojourns in Tunbridge Wells, I saw a copy of the book in (what was at one point called) Ottakar's bookshop, and had a quick look through it, noticing a disproportionately high number of the sections that featured the character of the Inquisitor, and gaining the impression that he played a much bigger part in the book than was actually the case. What I read did not engage my interest enough to make me want to get the book - especially not for full price.

Some years later, after I'd moved to Hull, it was one of my periodic excursions to Swansea that led to my original acquisition of a copy of Return. Not in Swansea itself, but between coaches on the journey back. As usual, I had taken advantage of the gap between connections to pop into the second-hand bookshop up the hill from the coach station, and found a Return there. I bought it, and started reading it in the queue to get on the coach. That must be the only occasion on which I played a gamebook without using dice and lost as a result of a failed roll: I had been keeping track of the various penalties inflicted on my character, and knew that if I had been using dice, my chances of succeeding would be somewhere between zero and five in twelve, depending on my Initial score. Regardless, the odds did not favour my dodging the net, so I concluded that if I were playing by the rules, I'd probably fail, went with that outcome, and wound up captured and tortured to death by a Goblin.

I didn't try the book again until I was home and had access to dice. And then I kept on trying to win it - always by the rules (but almost certainly allocating dice before long) - until I finally succeeded. After the first few attempts, I started working on a 'condensed' version of the book, like the one I'd done for the first Lone Wolf book back in the nineties. It gradually grew longer as I went along, rarely requiring correction, because wrong decisions were almost always obviously wrong a very short time after they were made. Eventually I succeeded, the book went to a charity shop, and my notes probably got binned, as I couldn't imagine ever needing a lengthy list of instructions for completing a gamebook I no longer owned. When I got back into gamebooks for good, I acquired a replacement copy of Return from a fellow fan at the official FF forum, in whatever form it existed at that time. Probably in exchange for something, but I can't remember what.

The book's Background section is a little awkward. It starts by going on about the tendency of evil wizards to use dark magics to enable them to return from the dead, and proceeds to the revelation that Zagor, the infamous Warlock of Firetop Mountain, has done just that. Ten years after his death, he's back, as a result of which the distinctive red vegetation that gave the mountain its name has turned black, livestock in the vicinity has been dying nastily, and people living in the region have been abducted during the night, for use as raw materials in the construction of a new body for Zagor. There's nothing particularly wrong with that, but then the focus shifts to the viewpoint of my character, one of Titan's many itinerant adventurers, who knows nothing of what Mr. Livingstone has just spent the past page-and-a-half explaining. My wanderings have brought me to the village of Anvil, located not far from the mountain. Observing that the locals are in 'wary of strangers' mode, I go to the tavern to find out what's alarmed them so, and get given a quick explanation of what the Background section has already revealed once.

Nobody from Anvil feels up to the challenge of trying to re-kill Zagor, but I offer to do so in return for a night's lodgings. And what sort of stats does the man who dares to confront the risen Warlock have? I will be allocating dice again, since without a double-figure Skill I'll have no chance.
Skill 12
Stamina 18
Luck 11
Not bad, but even if I can remember the correct path, there's no guarantee that I'll make it to the end. Or even to Firetop Mountain, for that matter.

In the morning, the tavern's barman, whose parents cruelly saddled him with the name 'Moose', advises me to seek the assistance of the grand wizard Yaztromo. As I set off, I wonder if it's worth trying to get help from the 'wise, good, powerful, philanthropic' wizard who has never refused to help anyone who sought his aid in opposing evil. Before I can resolve this knotty quandary, Moose catches up to me to say that a couple of Trackers eavesdropped on our conversation, and must be stopped before they can warn Zagor that I'm on his case. As far as I'm aware, nothing actually comes of their passing on the warning if I decide not to bother going after them, but I join Moose in the chase anyway, as they have something that's useful or essential on them.

Along the way I spot something shiny, and stop for a closer look. It's a shield, lying around for no good reason, so I pick it up before returning to the pursuit of the Trackers. After a bit, Moose indicates that I should stop running. Branches rustle nearby, and the Trackers give away their position by howling. One of them throws a dagger at me, but my new shield protects me, and I add the dagger to my inventory before charging in to battle. Moose and I kill a Tracker each, and help ourselves to the Z-embossed gold coins they have. I also take a couple more daggers, but don't touch the piece of paper that Moose finds in one Tracker's boot, as looking at it was what hit my original Return character with his first Skill penalty.

Moose returns to Anvil while I continue on my way, next encountering a man who leads a donkey that carries buckets of mushrooms. In appalling verse he introduces himself as Dungheap Dan, and when I attempt to speak to him, he gives me a mushroom, indicating in rhyme that it has medicinal properties. I proceed on my way before he can start on the limerick about the young lady from Kallamehr.

The path forks, and I am presented with a choice between seeking Yaztromo and heading straight to Firetop Mountain. Picking the non-suicidal option, I head south until distracted by a cry for help. Investigating, I find a honey-smeared man staked to the ground and being attacked by ants. I release him, and he gives me an unreliable Ring of Invisibility.

I keep going until dusk, and then take shelter in the cellar of a ruined hut. Before settling down for the night, I search the place, finding a numbered key in a clay pot, and a wooden brick and ball in a leather pouch that was inside a box. After an uneventful night I wake to the sound of footsteps overhead. Whoever is up there fails to notice the trapdoor down into the cellar, and I wait for them to get some way away before emerging and resuming my trek.

A reception committee awaits me at the Dwarven village of Stonebridge: the people of Anvil sent a messenger bird with news of my quest. It turns out that Yaztromo is not at home, having gone west to the town of Kaad to deal with an outbreak of plague, so transportation has been arranged. A Dwarf leads me to a boat on the Red River, crewed by nine men with silly fantasy-fied versions of real world names. Probably based on Livingstone's Ultra 30 Race Team, to whom the book is dedicated.

We set off down the river, and after a while we see a capsized boat with an Orc clinging to it. Suspecting a trap, we sail past, and the Orc hurls a throwing axe at us, fatally hitting one of the crew (and potentially revealing the identity of Ian's least favourite member of the Ultra 30 team).

A little later a dove flies down to the boat, bearing a message from Moose. Somehow Zagor has learned of my plan to defeat him, and even more somehow, Moose has learned of Zagor's plan to thwart my plan by sending a Doppelganger to Kaad to impersonate Yaztromo. The warning concludes by pointing out what I apparently already know: that Doppelgangers can easily be identified by their eye colour (a rule that Ian forgets or ignores the next time he features a Doppelganger in a gamebook).

The weather turns nasty, but as I didn't get half the crew massacred by Orcs, the boat makes it to the jetty near Kaad intact. I continue on foot, and just outside the town I am greeted by an uncharacteristically friendly Yaztromo with the wrong colour eyes. He tries to shake my hand, but I know that its touch will send me to another world, and attack. The subsequent fight is bothersome: neither the Doppelganger nor I can win except by rolling a double after inflicting a blow on the other combatant. I succeed at this in the fourth round of the battle, but on previous attempts it's taken a lot longer.

Proceeding into the town, I find the real Yaztromo, who explains that he's too busy dealing with the plague to accompany me. He can give me advice, though, and tells me that I'll need some Elementals. A quirk of the Raise Dead spell that Zagor used on himself requires him to secrete a number of numbered replica dragons' teeth made of gold, which can be used to summon Elementals, within his domain. Yaztromo also advises me to visit the local store, gives me some money to buy stuff, and provides directions to the home of Zoot Zimmer, who can provide rapid transportation to the mountain.

I head to the shop, finding a boy playing with wooden bricks outside it. The lad tells me that the proprietor isn't in, and if I want the brat to fetch him, I'll have to hand over a wooden brick. Lucky I found one in that cellar, eh? I provide the requisite bribe, and soon the shop is open. It contains an assortment of junk, everything priced at 2 Gold Pieces, and despite having at least 15 coins, I'm only allowed to buy five items. I get a pair of leather gloves, a magnifying glass, a mirror, a rope and a lantern.

My purchases made, I seek Zoot Zimmer, whose address is stated in the text, so readers wise to Ian Livingstone's tricks will make a note of the house number. Zimmer turns out to be a Half-Elf, and a deliverer of painfully clunky exposition. He offers me some herbal tea, which would restore a little Stamina if I'd lost any (one of the relatively few occasions in the book where any healing can be had), and then summons a Giant Eagle, on which the two of us ride off to Firetop Mountain. I don't think there's a single voyage by air in an Ian Livingstone gamebook that doesn't include an attack by some flying predator, but at least on this occasion it's possible to evade the monster, whatever it is. Once the skies are clear again, we resume our journey, and Zoot drops me off by the mountain, then flies off on the Eagle.

The appearance of the mountain is a little intimidating, and is described almost word for word as it was back in TWoFM. A little more variety would have been nice, even just finding a synonym for 'gargantuan'. For the next several paragraphs my 'in-character' perspective is going to be a bit different from normal: while this character has never been here before, most readers would be familiar with quite a bit of the area even on their first attempt at Return on account of having been through it back when they played the first FF book. As the nostalgia element is a significant aspect of RtFM, I'll be treating the revisited locations more as they would have appeared to FF veterans than as my new character would be perceiving them for the first time.

I enter the cave leading into the interior of the mountain and proceed to the first junction. I can't remember whether or not there's anything useful at the dead end to the east this time round, so I'll check that out first. The door to the room with the pit in has been boarded up, and on the ground nearby I find a bottle with something in it. I have to break the bottle to get it out, and it's a brass egg. Useless, as I recall.

Going back the way I came, and straight across at the junction, I pass the cobweb-festooned corpse of the Orc guard who was sleeping on duty back in The Warlock. The doors in the walls of the corridor leading north from his guard post have also been boarded up, and padlocked for good measure. The 'closed down' aesthetic is taken to new extremes on the westward branch of the next junction: the door to the Orc Chieftain's quarters has vanished altogether. The dead end that's taken its place is so unimpressive that I automatically head east to another junction.

Further to the east, Livingstone throws a bone to the readers wishing to revisit old encounters - the animated skeletons of the five squabbling Orcs from TWoFM are continuing their dispute, and can be killed all over again. I'll bypass the encounter this time round, as there's nothing to be gained from it but the possibility of flesh wounds. Well, there is also the case that once held the bow and silver-headed arrow known as The Giver of Sleep, but the weapon itself is long gone, and I see little point in risking Stamina loss for so little reward.

Instead I go north, up another corridor with three doors set into the wall. These doors haven't been barred, so I can investigate the rooms behind them. The first of these rooms, formerly used to imprison an unsuccessful adventurer, now contains only debris and a chain attached to the wall. Searching the clutter on the floor turns up a gold coin, a tin whistle and an onyx egg - nothing of any significance in this adventure. Pulling on the chain yields a better result, yanking a stone from the wall to reveal a hidden compartment. The hole is too small to admit my head, but I can fit an arm through. Fumbling around inside, I find some gelatinous gunk at the bottom, with a cylindrical canister buried in it. As I remove the canister, I observe that the glove on my hand is giving off wisps of smoke, indicating that the goo was acidic. Good thing I wasn't bare-handed (as was my character the first time I played this book - hello Skill penalty number two). The canister has a screw top, which I undo, and green vapour billows from inside. I hold my breath and wait for the gas to disperse, and then look inside the canister, which contains the first of the gold teeth I need.

The Wizard Books reprint of Return fixed a minor error here: originally, there was no number on this tooth, though Yaztromo said that the teeth would all have numbers on, and when the tooth is needed at the endgame, the text refers to the number 'on the tooth'. There is an inscription hinting at the type of Elemental that this tooth will summon, and the number relating to that kind of Elemental can be learned elsewhere in the adventure, so the omission doesn't render the book unplayable, but it has caused unnecessary confusion: I once had to refer to the Wizard edit to confirm to a fellow fan that the tooth in the canister was indeed the correct one, and there wasn't yet another numbered tooth hidden somewhere really obscure.

Leaving the room, I bypass the next door. The armoury was barely worth visiting back in TWoFM, and now it's worse, containing only a choice between Instant Death and a Skill penalty - the third one that helped doom my first RtFM character. The third door is another matter, though. It leads to a derelict torture chamber, with the skeleton of a long-dead victim on the rack. Observing a gold ring on one of the skeleton's fingers, I go across to add it to my inventory, and a snigger from up above alerts me to the fact that a weighted net is falling towards me. At full Skill I have no trouble dodging it, and I look up to see an annoyed Goblin peering through a hole in the ceiling.

The Goblin scurries away, and as there's a rope attached to the net, I can climb up and give chase. But first I take the ring, noting the number inscribed on it, and put it on. Once I have climbed up and squeezed through the hole, I find myself in a low-roofed room with one exit, and a sword hanging on the wall. Scratched on the hilt of the sword is the name of the infamous Chaos Champion who once owned the sword. The text points out how odd it is to find such a legendary weapon in a Goblin's home, but it's a little late for Ian to be trying to lampshade such absurdities. I take the sword and leave via the narrow tunnel.

After about twenty metres I find an iron spike that has been driven into the floor, and just beyond it is a steep drop. Ominous noises come from behind me, so I attach my rope to the spike and climb down the shaft ahead. Retrieving my rope, I light the lantern and ignore the chalk writing on one of the walls: quite apart from the probable lethality of the trap that reading it triggers, the whole scenario of the trap is one of the most 'What was the author thinking?' aspects of the entire book.

Another tunnel leads out of this room, passing through a candlelit room that's littered with skulls. As I head for the exit, the skulls animate and start shuffling towards me. I jump over them, narrowly succeeding at the Skill roll required, and don't hang around to see what they make of my prodigious leap. The passage beyond this room ends at an unlocked door, and I go through, closing the door behind me. Nothing was said about the skulls giving chase beyond the room, but even if they did, the need to turn the door handle pretty much guarantees that they won't get this far.

The room beyond the door contains an oak chair with figures carved on it, and has a trapdoor set into the floor. I'm pretty sure there's nothing worth having here, so I open the door in the opposite wall. It leads into a marble-floored room containing three statues of warriors suffering a painful death of some kind. The door slams behind me, and part of one of the walls begins to rise up, revealing a serpentine tail.

Yes, it is what the clues suggest.

I close my eyes and start rummaging through my backpack for that mirror (no idea why I couldn't get the mirror out while the wall was still too low for me to be in any danger of catching the Gorgon's eye). Then I hold the mirror up to try and reflect the Gorgon's gaze back at her. My Luck holds, and she petrifies herself. I don't think there's anything useful in the chamber from which the Gorgon came, but I'll just check... No, just a couple of clay pots that contain nothing helpful. But now I've come in here, I have to break at least one of them. I can only remember the contents of one pot, but I do recall that the item in question is only harmful if I try to take it. I smash the pot that rattles... and that's not what I was expecting. Still, now I can see the numbered silver ring, I remember what it does, and know that it too will do nothing bad if I just leave it in the remains of the pot.

There's another door from the room containing the Gorgon's victims (which is chained and padlocked, otherwise I wouldn't have hung around to risk getting stoned), so I force it open and head down the tunnel beyond. A little further on is a door in the wall, with a convenient barred window that allows me to look inside without attracting any attention. There's an Orc being served rat stew by a hunchbacked Dwarf. Now, I don't need to eat any Orc fleas (the consequences of looking at that chalk writing are messed up), but I believe that the crate under the dining table contains something useful or essential, so I enter anyway.

The Orc attacks, but doesn't last long. Despite already having two swords, I have to take the one the Orc used as well. Then the Dwarf attacks me, and fares no better than the Orc did. The crate contains a silver bell, which I need, and a load of rotting cabbage leaves, which are not required. Before returning to the tunnel I also check out the back room, where I find a lot of irrelevant items and a gold spoon. I can win the book without the spoon, but taking it won't hurt me, so I pocket it.

Further along the tunnel is another door, this one with no window. Sounds come from beyond it, suggesting that someone is in pain. I open the door, finding a man with bandaged eyes chained to a wall. The colour of his trousers, the familiarity of his voice, and the stilted nature of his begging not to be hurt again, all lead me to the conclusion that this is Zoot Zimmer. I greet him, but he doesn't recognise my voice, and refuses to trust me unless I can tell him where he lives. Good thing I added him to my address book (not that I'll be getting any further opportunities to visit).

Zoot explains how he wound up here: a Dragon attacked and blinded him on the return flight to Kaad, and the Eagle crashed. Patrolling Orcs found him and brought him here, to donate an arm to Zagor's new body. I'm not convinced that enough time has passed to allow all that to happen, but maybe I just did a really thorough job of checking the rotten cabbage leaves. Anyway, I break Zoot free, and lead him along the corridor. It ends at a stone wall, but footprints on the ground suggest that there's a secret door here.

Zoot shows off his heightened sense of touch, finding a loose stone with a handle behind it. He suspects a trap, and continues to search, finding a second handle behind another loose stone. Another of the gold teeth is in there, too. Warning me to stand back in case he's made a mistake, Zoot pulls the handle he thinks is the safe one. It opens the secret door. It also opens a trapdoor into a spiked pit just below Zoot. Given the nature of his dialogue up until now, he probably utters the Wilhelm Scream as he plunges to his death.

Jumping over the pit and through the secret door, which closes behind me, I find myself back in familiar-to-TWoFM-readers territory, beyond the portcullis at the end of the last corridor with three doors. The branch of this passage running west has caved in, so after a brief search in the vicinity of the portcullis, which turns up only a numbered bronze tooth, I head east.

Around a corner I find the 'Rest Ye Here Weary Traveller' bench, though only the first word on the sign is still legible. I think it's still safe to sit on, but as I'm already at full Stamina, there's no point in taking the time to double-check. There have been further cave-ins at the next two junctions, blocking off another turning west and the passage to the Iron Cyclops' room, but the tunnel that goes north is still intact.

Beyond the next door I find a room containing a human skeleton. It's probably supposed to be the remains of the Barbarian who could be encountered here in The Warlock, but he was armed with an axe, while this skeleton has a sword. Amusingly, the text asks if I need a sword - okay, I would have lost mine if I'd gone snooping around in the armoury, but as it is, I have my original sword, the Chaos Champion's sword, and the Orc's sword that the book made me pick up. I'd be running a little short if I needed to arm a string quartet, but for the purposes of this adventure I have more than enough swords. Also in the room is a wooden box, which once contained a mallet and several wooden stakes, but now holds only a ball of string. If I run into any Vampires, I'll just have to hope that I can distract them with a game of cat's cradle.

Continuing along the passage, I reach what used to be a rather fancy art gallery, but the decor has deteriorated (is 'fade' the right word to describe the time-induced change of colour experienced by white paint?) and the paintings are no longer on the walls. A Cave Troll art critic enters via the far door, and expresses his frustration at having missed the exhibition by attacking me. He has a few copper coins, a bulb of garlic (one of the more clever red herrings in the book, as garlic is usually a good thing to have), an earwig-shaped earring that I wouldn't try on even if I were the piercing type, and a piece of paper with the word 'Leg' written on it. My character surmises that the Troll was actually seeking a replacement limb for the Warlock, but even if I overlook the fact that in the climactic confrontation, Zagor has two legs (just like Terry Gilliam), the lack of specification has problematic potential - the recipient of any leg procured by the Troll could literally have ended up with two left feet.

In the pear-shaped room shortly before the river, I catch sight of a Troglodyte sleeping on a mound of rubble. Next to his head are a throwing dagger and a pouch, which I take. The dagger may not be necessary, as I still have the ones I took from the Tracker (and the fact that one of them was thrown at me suggests that they too are throwing daggers), but the pouch contains a piece of slate with the word 'arrow' scratched onto it, and not knowing that word would mean trouble later on. I suppose I could make a lucky guess, but I prefer to do things the proper way.

Continuing to the river bank, I ring for the ferryman, who demands two Gold Zagors for the crossing. His ten-years-back predecessor wanted three gold, so I guess inflation rates are non-existent down here. As is good service, actually: paying the required sum (even with Zagor-approved currency) led to one of my early attempts at the book ending badly. When I refuse to pay for his sudden but inevitable betrayal, he transforms into a Wererat, so either Zagor's not the only individual to have been brought back to life, or muroid lycanthropy is a perk or requirement for the Firetop Montain ferryman.

After killing the Wererat (and, as is traditional, finding a sum slightly lower than he charged on him), I get into the boat to cross the river. Part of the way across, the boat remembers that everything from the north bank onwards in TWoFM was written by Steve Jackson, so it insists on heading down river to the entrance to a whole new tunnel complex, thereby saving Ian Livingstone from having to figure out the way through the Maze of Zagor.

The cavern to which I am taken is filled with giant crystals (best ignored), and has two inland exits, one marked 'PITS', the other 'PUZZLES'. I take the latter option, partly to avoid a couple of unnecessary fights, and partly because some puns are below even me.

The tunnel leads to a cavern, its walls lined with crammed bookshelves. A black-robed Ian Livingstone look-alike (with a Fighting Fantasy logo belt buckle) introduces himself as the Inquisitor and says I must solve his puzzles to be allowed to go any further. Both puzzles are mathematical in nature, and no real challenge for me. My success not only permits me to go further, but also provides an opportunity to have a look at the Ianquisitor's library. The books I see include a couple of in-jokes: there's a copy of Casket of Souls and a tiny tome entitled Eye of the Dragon (which is a bit of an odd title, as it contains details of the dragon's teeth that I'm after). The book is written in minuscule print, and I'd be unable to read it without the magnifying glass I bought in Kaad. Several pages are missing, but I do at least learn the purpose of one of the teeth I've found.

The exit from the library leads via a sliding panel to a room which contains a breastplate on a table. I'm at full Skill, and Ian hasn't offered Attack Strength bonuses since about City of Thieves, so even if the breastplate isn't booby-trapped (which I think it probably is), putting it on is unlikely to help me at all.

Further along the passage is a door set into the wall. The sound of laughter comes from behind it. The handle will not turn, so I knock, and get asked the password. I try the word I got from the sleeping Troglodyte, which is correct. A second Troglodyte, flanked by Lizard Man guards, opens the door and says he wasn't aware that a human would be entering the sheep's eye eating competition. It's not something I'm massively keen on, but there's no way of winning this book without participating in the contest, and as it's only my character who'll be actually eating the eyeballs, I'm prepared to go along with it.

The other contestants are a Barbarian (no species mentioned, so presumably he's one of the humans the Troglodyte didn't think were playing), a neanderthal-looking caveman and a Troglodyte. The Barbarian offers a side bet on the contest, and I agree. He insists on only betting gold, so I put up the spoon as my stake. The outcome of the contest is entirely dice-dependent, making this one of the more frustrating aspects of the book. At least to get what I need, I only have to beat the Barbarian, not win outright. On this occasion I do actually beat every other contestant, though for a bit it looked as if the caveman might outdo me. The Barbarian comes last, and gives me a numbered dragon's tooth made of gold, which means more to me than the actual prize for winning the contest, a bronze bust of Zagor.

Returning to the corridor, I carry on to a junction. I'm pretty sure that going the wrong way here will doom me, but I can't remember which is the correct one. Well, I do know which one is most often the best option in a Livingstone gamebook, so I'll try that one. Yes, that's looking good. The passage leads past a door from behind which comes a sound like someone chopping wood. In fact it's the sound of a Chaos Warrior practicing swordplay on a wooden dummy. He appears to consider me a better practice opponent, and actually manages to wound me a couple of times before I conclude the bout.

The room contains an assortment of weapons and a box of clutter. From the weapons I take a whip (no option to take a sword, for once). The box contains a rat's skull, 3 Gold Pieces, 2 Silver Pieces, a horseshoe, a horn (all of which I have no choice but to take), one of the missing pages of Eye of the Dragon, a copper bracelet and a silver pendant. I get out the magnifying glass to read the page, which reveals what I need to know about the tooth I have yet to find. Well, what I need to know other than how to acquire it. I know the pendant to be dangerous (especially to anyone carrying garlic - very sneaky, Mr. Livingstone), and don't remember the bracelet serving any vital purpose, so I leave both alone and continue on my way.

Further on there's another door in the wall. I hear shuffling feet from behind it, and go through. It leads to a room in which a pock-marked, rag-wearing creature is carrying a dragon's skull to a crate. The deceased dragon appears to have undergone some dental work at a point prior to its demise, so I opt to take a closer look at it. The creature carrying it does not approve, and I must fight. Not a very skilled opponent, but it is a Plague Bearer, and I'm doomed if it wins even one round of battle. It doesn't even come close to harming me.

Disappointingly, the gold tooth in the skull's jaw has no inscription. Still, also in the room is a human skull being used as a candle-holder, with a detachable top, so I take a look inside. Another of the missing pages is in there, along with a small bone carving of a dragon's head. The page (which is significantly longer than the preceding one - 85 characters compared to just 51) explains the function of a third tooth, and the carving is an unusual lucky charm, designed to reward the fortunate and punish the 'worthless' individuals who are prone to misfortune. Kind of a cross between karma and Tory policy. My Luck is high enough that the charm restores the Stamina I lost to the Chaos Champion.

Back to the passage, and before long another door. This leads to a room with a sunken floor, in which massive worms slither over the carcass of a dead dog. Also down there is a fancy brass box, which I enter the pit to retrieve. The Sucker Worms aren't interested in the living, so I wait for an opportunity to grab the box without a fight. It contains only another missing page, this one exactly as long as the last one, which confirms what I had already inferred about the fourth tooth. If I wanted to take the box with me, I'd have to discard two items to make room for it. After all, a tin whistle and a rat skull take up so much backpack space.

Corridor, door. This leads to a dusty, cobwebbed room in which two skeletons face each other across a gaming table. The playing pieces are miniature dragons, one side gold, the other silver. Of course the skeletons animate and attack when I pick up one of the pieces. I don't fare so well in this fight, though I am still the survivor. The game pieces turn out to just be painted wood, and the only other items I find in the room are another gold coin and a glass ball filled with smoke. Smashing the ball merely releases the smoke, which makes me feel ill, but eating the mushroom that Dan gave me settles my stomach and heals a little of the damage I took in the fight.

The corridor leads to another junction. Should I go the same way as before, or try the other direction? I'll take a chance on Ian's favourite again... A wise choice. The tunnel leads to a door with assorted strange items nailed to it (small skulls, an ear, old coins, a copper triangle...). Behind the door a woman calls for more crushed maggots. Sounds unpromising, perhaps, but this is somewhere I need to visit. I step through into a lavishly furnished chamber in which a beautiful woman is grinding something up with mortar and pestle. A boy with a silver headband brings a bowl, presumably the requested maggots.

The ring I acquired in the torture chamber dispels the illusion. The woman is a hideous crone, her servant a crude hybrid of dog and human. A voice in my head urges me to ring the bell, so I pull out the one I got from the box of cabbage leaves and give it a good shake. The chime causes the witch to fall unconscious, and Jim-Jim the dog-headed mutant attacks me. I put him down, and don't try on his headband.

Searching the room, I find a metal panel set into the wall. Above it is a coin slot, and a sign warns that this only accepts silver. I drop in the silver coins I got from the Chaos Champion, unlocking the panel and finding the last of the teeth I require. The room only has the one door, so I head back to the last junction and take the other branch. A little way along that, I see a locked door set into the wall. In one of those ludicrous coincidences that occur in some gamebooks, the key I found in the cellar of that ruined hut fits the lock.

Beyond the door is a corridor with a Goblin in it. He sees me and reaches for a lever, but I interrupt him with the Troglodyte's throwing dagger. Retrieving the dagger, I continue along the corridor to a meeting room. Eight chairs surround a long table with coins scattered across it, and the walls are lined with shelves full of books, scrolls, maps and the like. An old man with a purple gown and headband enters, identifying me as an intruder, but reflecting that I may be of use to him if I'm intelligent enough. His challenge is a test of observation - to count up the coins on show. I add up the ones depicted in the accompanying illustration, getting the total right, and the man notes that I will make an excellent spy, once he's used his Mindbending abilities to secure my allegiance to Zagor. Not keen on such a change of profession, I use the whip I found earlier to incapacitate him. After pocketing the gold, I take a look at the contents of the shelves, eventually finding a scroll that explains how to use the teeth to summon the Elementals. I wonder why Yaztromo neglected to mention that little detail.

The exit from the Mindbender's room takes me to a hallway in which half a dozen mummies stand on pedestals. A clock chimes, causing the mummies to animate, and I try using the Ring of Invisibility, as my FF combat manager only has slots for five opponents, making fights against larger groups a bit of a hassle. The ring works for long enough that I can get through the door at the end of the hall.

In the antechamber beyond, I see an ornate door with a big 'Z' on it. A formidable-looking beast guards it, but the Chaos Warrior's sword from the Goblin torturer's room proves effective for bribing the brute to let me through. The door leads to a chamber in which a couple of Zagor's personal physicians, the Death Lords (how do I know what these people call themselves and do for a living?) are being brought a fresh body to plunder for transplantable bits. One of them spots me, and summons a couple of Goblin archers. I block the arrows with my shield, and fight the Goblins. The book recognises that the sword I used as a bribe might have been my only sword, and lists a Skill penalty for lacking such a weapon, but I still have a pair of the things. More than enough to make short work of the Goblins.

The Death Lords flee, but before giving chase I search the Goblins' quarters. I help myself to a wooden staff with a carved bone skull on it, and leave the bowls of soup (slightly put off by the claw that protrudes from one of them) and the wicker basket that could contain something nasty.

Now I follow the Death Lords, who are waiting for me in a marble-floored room. Standing on an inlaid golden crescent, and brandishing metal spheres, they mutter an incantation that opens up great rifts in the floor. I tap the floor with the staff I just acquired, and the floor becomes solid again. The Death Lords then throw the spheres at me. I imagine that Ian Livingstone was attempting to riff on the Phantasm films here, but that doesn't make the phrase 'razor-sharp spheres' any less ludicrous. What happens next is determined by the roll of a die, modified by how much armour I have. Which is only the shield. Looks like I should have taken that breastplate. And I don't think I ever even saw the helmet. With what I roll, I'd need all three items to evade the spheres. Since I only have one, I get a sphere in the arm (yeah, a helmet would have done a lot to help against that. The sphere causes me to lose consciousness, and I come round just in time for the operation in which my left arm is removed so that Zagor can use it.

It's frustrating to have failed after getting so far, but at least I have now been reminded of a mistake or two to avoid next time. And while RtFM isn't that great an anniversary celebration, there are Ian Livingstone books I'd less like to have to replay.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Bad Things Happened in Here

Way back at the start of the year I made quite a hash of playing Castle Death, the seventh of Joe Dever's Lone Wolf  gamebooks. In view of the nature of character development over the course of the series, and now that I've adopted a policy of establishing 'save points' between books, I shall be having another go at it before I proceed to the next one.

I don't think there was anything inherently wrong with the new equipment and Magnakai Discipline that I chose at the start of my previous attempt at the book, so I'll pick the same as before. Thus, I again commence the adventure with
Combat Skill: 17
Endurance: 25
Disciplines: Divination, Psi-screen, Weaponmastery (Sword, Bow, Dagger, Mace), Huntmastery
I explained the background to the adventure the last time I blogged about it. To recapitulate for anyone who'd rather not (re)read the earlier post just now: the second of the mystical McGuffins I require is located in the fortress of Kazan-Oud (aka Castle Death), which is surrounded by a magical shield in order to contain the evil that dwells within. I have been provided with a Power-key to enable me to pass through the shield, and a coracle to cross the lake containing the island on which the fortress is situated.

Learning from the previous Lone Wolf's mistakes, I head for the stone jetty. Lightning illuminates the fortress, the building's state of disrepair inspiring ominous and fanciful similes, and I become aware that the strong current in the water threatens to smash my tiny vessel into the jetty. I could grab for one of the slimy ropes that dangle from iron rings set into gargoyles' mouths, or abandon the coracle and make for the rocks jutting from the water to the west... Except that Divination tells me that neither ropes nor rocks are as they seem. Could those 'rocks' be the same 'boulders' that turned out to be part of the squidlike monstrosity that killed me last time? And the 'ropes' be tentacles, meaning that this gargantuan cephalopod just sits around hanging on to the iron rings all day on the off-chance that some adventurer might happen by, wanting to moor a vessel? A ludicrous concept, but sillier things have happened in gamebooks. Even non-comedy ones.

Comparing the original text to the Mongoose reissue, I see that there's more violence in the newer version. That is, whereas previously the boat was violently heading for a collision, nowadays it's violently heading for a violent collision. Well, that's a needlessly unnecessary gratuitous and superfluous edit that didn't need making.

Getting back to the plot, I now have the additional option of closing my eyes and praying for survival. Could be a 'you great twit, whatever made you think that would work?' Instant Death, but maybe the current isn't so dangerous after all, merely providing a perceived threat that scares the gullible into becoming squid-snacks. I'll take that chance - and it was the right choice, but not for the reasons I had in mind. The coracle is slammed against the jetty wall with destructive force, but the violence of the collision is so violently violent that I am flung from the shattering vessel onto solid ground, using my Kai stunt skills to avoid taking any damage from the impact. There's another less-than-ideal Mongoose edit here, replacing a nice bit of figurative language with a more prosaic description of my landing.

Two flights of steps lead from the jetty, one down to the beach I've been trying to avoid, the other up to a cave mouth. I don't get any of the hints that Pathsmanship would provide, so I remember my last failure at the book and go up. A hefty downpour commences as I ascend. Something in the cave smells bad, but I enter anyway. Perhaps not a good idea, as I wind up falling into a hole and getting knocked out, but if that's what it takes to avoid the leviathan on the beach, I'll accept it. The circumstances of the fall are a little mysterious, a new word choice in the Mongoose text potentially implying that the floor of the cave is somehow removed rather than just collapsing.

I regain consciousness atop a mound of rotting vegetation, with someone or something watching me and laughing at me through a grille. Oh, and I'm just about to get attacked by a giant monocular snake. Not the only oversized serpent in the book, which has led to mild confusion in the past. I don't have the Discipline of Animal Control, but I do still have my bow... and the arrows fell out of my quiver in the fall, so that's of no help to me right now. At least the Sommerswerd is still in my scabbard - until I draw it and start fighting the approaching ophidian. The Mongoose text here repeats the fact that I've lost my arrows (fair enough, as I wouldn't have known if I hadn't tried using the bow) and clarifies that the snake has two fangs (not as useful an edit, though I suppose the creature's below-average number of eyes could prompt speculation on other anatomical deviations from the norm).

On the far side of the chamber into which I fell, there's a small tunnel leading out. I can try to escape through it after four rounds of combat. Not sure I like the 'try' in there. By the end of round 4, there's a 70% chance of my killing the snake with one more blow (and reasonable odds of taking no damage in the process), and a 4% risk of mutually assured destruction. I've faced worse odds in books 2, 4 and 5 (and will face far worse in book 13, but that's a rant for another day), so I don't risk finding out what complications accompany making a break for the exit. As it turns out, I have to hit snakey twice more to kill it, but don't sustain lethal damage in the process. Mind you, I am in fairly poor shape by the end of the fight, and metaknowledge tells me that the healing potions I have on me aren't going to do me any good after this book, so I down one of them. Well, I do after dashing into the tunnel mouth, as the spectator starts firing bolts of destructive energy at me when the fight doesn't go as he/she/it wanted.

And the tunnel turns out not to be a tunnel, just an attached cave. Good thing I fought on rather than getting myself cornered in here. Especially as it contains a lot of massive eggs, neatly arranged on a bed of deceased adventurers' clothes and backpacks. I risk checking the packs for useful items, and find quite a bit of stuff. Some weapons I don't need, a blanket, a bottle of wine, another healing potion, and a couple of items of armour. Joe Dever may have encountered a few loophole-exploiting gamers in the decades between Beaver and Mongoose, as the more recent text spells out that Lone Wolf may not gain multiple bonuses by stacking helmets. The helmet here isn't as good as the one I'm already wearing, so I shall leave it, but the padded waistcoat may come in handy.

As I'm helping myself to things, I hear a hinge creak in the chamber where I fought the snake. I freeze, waiting for a new attack, and then I hear another noise. From behind me. The crack of a shell. There's a little reordering of sentences in the Mongoose text, and I don't think it's an improvement. Originally, the sequence went:
  1. Hear another sound.
  2. Note that it's behind you.
  3. Confirm that yes, that is one of the snake's eggs hatching.
Now it's:
  1. Hear the sound.
  2. Realize that it's an egg hatching.
  3. Oh, and yes, the eggs are still behind you. Just making that clear in case you were hoping that they might have snuck off somewhere else while you were distracted.
Both versions of the book imply that there are multiple hungry baby giant snakes emerging from the one egg, but have illustrations showing more than one egg hatching. While the newly-hatched brood have lower stats than the parent, a quirk of the Lone Wolf combat system means that I derive negligible benefit from the increased disparity in Combat Skill. I'm still significantly below full Endurance, so fighting them could get me killed. Rather than risk it, I hurl one of my Fireseeds into their midst. If I had the time, I'd try to come up with some 'Snakes on a Flame'-based witticism, but that creaking hinge has been followed by the clinking of weapons and armour, so I have a more pressing concern.

Unexpectedly, the next section has me searching for a concealed exit from the cave rather than confronting whoever came into the chamber. The Mongoose version also contains what looks like a spellchecker-induced error, mixing up 'effect' and 'affect'. I wish to effect an escape by smashing open the bricked-up trapdoor in the ceiling and climbing through. The armed and armoured figure(s) nearby may well want to affect my escape (probably to the extent that it doesn't even occur), but for some reason they choose not to interfere, even once I've broken through the bricks and am clambering up and not in a good position to defend myself.

I emerge into a dark and damp pillared hall, which contains a sarcophagus. More armour clanks in a tunnel to the right, and I'd feel more comfortable about the 'wait in ambush' option if the text were clearer about whether this sounds like one guard or many. Hiding behind a pillar may help clarify the issue, or it might just lead to a check on Invisibility, yet another of the Disciplines I do not yet have. I might as well try to find out.

Four armoured warriors - not human, judging by the length of their arms (and the fact that they have tails) - enter the hall. Not ambushing was a wise choice. Especially as I see their leader press a few buttons on the sarcophagus to open a secret door, through which they all depart. Once they've gone, I take a look at the sarcophagus myself. It's decorated with carvings of hybrids and even more bizarre creatures, and I am able to spot the outline of the concealed door. This is one instance where a Mongoose edit has improved the text, removing the implication that I didn't already know about the door (but not suggesting that I already did, so any reader turning to this section after having ambushed the warriors doesn't get confused by a reference to something they never saw happen).

The carvings include a snake that coils around three buttons. Divination provides no hints as to the correct sequence of button pushes, so either there's a clue somewhere that I failed to acquire, or this is a nastily arbitrary 'puzzle'. Still, having decided to try pressing buttons, I don't have the option of reconsidering once it becomes apparent that I can only make a blind guess. There are six possible sequences, so I roll a die to choose one, and wind up choosing 3-1-2. To my surprise, it works, opening the panel to reveal steps down to a door. I descend, and maybe that wasn't the right sequence after all, as a mildly awkward transition gets me trapped and gassed into unconsciousness. Well, I'm pretty sure there's no way of avoiding the trial I'm about to face, and this seems as good a way of getting to the bottleneck section as any.

I regain consciousness manacled to a wall in a large amphitheatre. Robed creatures glower at me. Close by is a pit, from which protrudes an iron pinnacle with a golden throne on it. A white-haird man sits on the throne, and floating above him are two crystals, one black, the other clear, with energy arcing between them. I recognise the clear one as the Lorestone I seek.

The man accuses me of having been sent to kill him, and the spectators address him as Lord Zahda and sentence me to 'the maze'. I am disarmed (but, oddly, not relieved of armour or the Power-Key that would enable at least one of the castle's denizens to breach the shield around the fortress), and experience the first, and mildest, incident of Joe Dever's punishing the player for having kept the same character since at least book 2 of the series: when one of Zahda's minions shows him the Sommerswerd, it emits a bolt of energy to fry the hand that wields it, and I get a punch in the face for finding this amusing.

Guards drag me away and push me into a pit. Out of the mist drifting overhead coalesces the shape of a skull with green eyes and a judge's wig. The skull speaks, telling me that if I escape from the maze, my life may be spared: otherwise, I will die. The maze entrance appears in the pit wall, and a crossbow bolt is fired at me to encourage me to go in. So I go in.

The mist up above gives off just enough light for me to be able to see the passage ahead of me. I advance to a circular vault, in which a sword lies on a stone block. Exits open to either side of me. The Discipline check here is slightly poorly worded, saying 'or' where 'and/or' would be more appropriate. Or do Divination and Psi-screen somehow cancel each other out, leaving me unable to sense what I could detect if I possessed just one of them? Rejecting that idea as just too silly, I learn from my Discipline(s) that the stone gives off magical emanations. Wary of a trap, I use the rope in my Backpack (evidently the minion of Zahda which took my weapons has never played Cluedo - pity I wasn't also carrying a candlestick or a spanner) to get the sword. It's just an ordinary weapon, but between the penalty for being unarmed and the bonus for having the right specialisation in Weaponskill, having the sword still significantly improves my chances in any fight I might get into down here.

This being a Joe Dever book, the exit to the left is probably the safer one to take. The passage soon turns a corner, and up ahead I see some large bubbles. A gust of wind blows them in my direction, so I draw the sword and puncture them before they can cause me any bother.

I did the obvious reference to The Prisoner last year, so here are some different hostile bubbles.

Somewhat bizarrely, the book describes the ease with which I slice through the bubbles with a comparison to 'scything cobwebs'. While, owing to the persistence of the spider that has taken up residence near my garden gate, I am familiar with clearing cobwebs out of the way, I have never felt the need to use a scythe to do the job. If anyone reading this has employed such an implement for that specific purpose, please comment on this post to let me know.

Up ahead is a pit, at least thirty feet across. As I wonder how I'm supposed to get to the other side, the bewigged skull appears again. The Mongoose text refers to the skull's return as 'unwelcome', but that seems a bit harsh, given that the skull provides a hint that there's an invisible path across the pit. Admittedly it does so in rhyme, which is a bit tiresome, but I still find doggerel preferable to being stuck. Again I get asked if I have 'Psi-screen or Divination', with no acknowledgement of the possibility that I might have both. And as the only other direction is for players who have neither of those Disciplines, that backs up my assumption of the implied 'and/' before the 'or'.

I can sense that there is indeed an invisible bridge, but not where it is. While searching for it, I hear something approaching, but cannot see what is coming. My hand finds the edge of the bridge, which feels like a plank, and is quite narrow, but then the footsteps stop, a whip cracks, and a wound appears on my hand. My attacker is no more visible than the bridge. I'm not sure that attempting to cross an unseen narrow bridge while being whipped by an invisible enemy is particularly wise, so I'd better fight. It's going to be a tough battle, but I'm armed, Huntmastery reduces the advantage provided by my foe's invisibility, and I still have my shield and helmet and the bonuses they provide. Quirkily, the odds would be slightly more favourable if I'd kept the blanket I found in the snake's nest, but even without bedclothes I have a decent chance of surviving.

My assailant becomes visible once I've killed him. At first glance he appears human, but a closer check reveals him to have a few feline characteristics, and scars suggesting that Zahda or one of his servants has been perpetrating Doctor Moreau-style atrocities. The whip my late opponent used remains unseen, but I can find a spear and a silent whistle on the body, both of which I take. Turning back to the pit, I find that the bridge has also become visible, so I cross it.

Zahda's voice sounds in my head, commending my bravery and wondering if I have brains to go with my brawn. I see a vision of him and the Lorestone I came here to acquire, and resolve to survive the maze and escape (why has it taken me this long to settle on such a goal?), then worry about what other dangers might be up ahead. I don't recall mood swings having been part of my character before now.

Continuing on my way, I reach a chamber that contains a bronze statue of a glum Zakhan. Judge Skull turns up again, and tells me in rhyme that I must answer the Zakhan's question correctly in order not to upset him. The statue then speaks, asking a riddle. It's a mathematical puzzle, and once I express it in algebraic terms, the answer becomes obvious. The Mongoose edition of the book repeats book 5's annoying gimmick of having the 'correct answer' section spell out that it is the section to which the reader should have been directed as a result of solving the puzzle. Apparently Joe Dever believed that his readers could figure out the answer to the riddle, but wasn't so convinced that they'd be able to infer from the phrase, 'In reply to your correct answer' that they had indeed got the question right.

A door opens, and I go through, descending a ramp to a new corridor. Slithering towards me is a giant worm (okay, so from a taxonomic perspective I was wrong about there being more than one 'oversized serpent' in the book, but it has been years since I last read the relevant encounters). Somehow I know to use the silent whistle here, and the worm turns out to really dislike ultrasonics. This is another place where the revised text is an improvement, toning down the sound's effect on the worm's nervous system from the implausible 'destroys' to the more reasonable 'wreaks havoc upon'.

In its writhings, the worm rears up into the overhead mist, which seems to be electrified. One fried worm later, the mist appears to have been shorted out, revealing a walkway and observation platform. I climb up onto it, as this is a good way of getting out of the maze. Possibly even the only one. The walkway is part of a whole network of suspended paths above the maze, and leads to a staircase that crosses the perimeter wall. An alarm sounds as I head for the exit, which leads to a junction.

There's a Pathsmanship check here, which makes me wary of automatically going left. In the absence of indications to the contrary, left does tend to be the better way to go in Lone Wolf books, but it may be that Pathsmanship would provide a hint that right is right on this occasion. Letting the existence of this Discipline check influence me is metagaming, but then, so is the whole 'go left' business. And it is, of course, possible that if I had Pathsmanship, I'd be advised to go left anyway. So that's what I do.

I reach the cells where the slaves are housed. The occupants hiss disdainfully as I pass by. At the end of the block is a cage containing a dirty and bloodstained man. Judging by the colour of his skin, hair and clothes, I may have been wrong in my previous post on this book when I said that there was no follow-up to Paido's revelation that his brother entered the fortress and was never seen again.

A key hangs on a peg close by, so I unlock the cage. The occupant is suffering from some disease, which has blinded him, and as I don't have Curing, I can't do anything about that. I can reassure him that I mean him no harm, though. He asks if the Elder Magi sent me, and since he wears the uniform of a Vakeros, I'm confident that even if he isn't Paido's brother, he'll still be on my side, so I answer truthfully and explain my mission.

He is Paido's brother Kasin, of course. He and I both know that he's not long for this world, as blindness is one of the symptoms of the terminal stage of the disease from which he suffers. It is not unreasonable that I should have this knowledge - I've had the basic Kai Discipline of Healing since the start of the series, and while its effectiveness has been diminished now that the advanced version is available, the medical knowledge it gave me should still be of some use. Anyway, Kasin tells me everything of use that he knows, which turns out to be quite a lot. Directions to Zahda's throne room, details of where to find a secret door into it, a warning to destroy the Doomstone to which the Lorestone has been linked, and the location of the boat in which Kasin came here.

I hear approaching guards, and absent myself before they arrive. The corridor leads to a staircase guarded by a Beastman, who soon ends up lying down on the job. I swap the spear for his dagger and descend the stairs. They lead to a hallway decorated with tapestries, statuettes, and a fountain. The tapestries are significant, as the secret door Kasin mentioned is behind one of them. The fountain turns out to be important too, as behind it is a guard with a crossbow. He steps out and tries to shoot me, and there's another Discipline check with an 'or' that should be 'and/or'. I have both relevant Disciplines, and with the help of one or other or both of them I evade the crossbow bolt with ease. The guard doesn't have time to reload or change weapons before I get to him, and only puts up slightly more of a fight than the one at the top of the stairs did. There's an odd Mongoose edit here, using the word 'belies' to express something totally unrelated to the actual meaning of the word.

More guards are coming, so I ignore the obvious exit and look behind the right tapestry for the secret door. This leads into a circular tunnel made of steel, and I hurry into it before the guards arrive. A little way along it I find a door set into one wall, and investigate. It leads into a steel-walled laboratory, containing all sorts of alchemical gubbins. This is also where the weapons confiscated from me have been stored, so I retrieve them. Also of note are a jar of a particularly powerful healing potion (which, in the Mongoose text, can only be consumed straight after combat, severely limiting its usefulness) and a Platinum Amulet which protects the wearer from high temperatures (but, IIRC, proves singularly useless for surviving the 'you dive into boiling water and die' Instant Death that may be encountered near the end of this book).

Returning to the tunnel, I continue along it. The temperature rises, but the Amulet protects me. There's another contentious 'or' for anyone who has the Discipline of Nexus - though, given that Nexus provides protection from extremes of temperature, it's possible that a player with Nexus wouldn't have bothered to take the Amulet. Not that having no need for an item would dissuade many gamebook players from taking it anyway, unless there was a limit on carrying capacity, and at this stage of the series only Weapons and Backpack items are subject to such a limit.

Anyway, the Amulet not only keeps me from being harmed, but also protects my clothing and equipment from the heat. Eventually the temperature drops again, and I reach an iron chamber. A spiral staircase leads up to a portal, which looks out onto the back of Zahda's throne, close to the levitating gems. It seems odd that this isn't better guarded. All right, there's the secret door, the heated tunnel, and the fact that the Doomstone is being used to booby-trap the Lorestone, but considering how paranoid Zahda was about assassins the last time I met him, an unsupervised portal to right behind where he generally sits still seems rather careless. Or is there more here than meets the eye? I have the option of looking more closely at the throne, so I'll check for other traps.

Nope, it turns out that the 'examine the throne' choice means 'wander out in front of the throne like a complete numpty so that Zahda can see and attack you'. Great. Maybe I'll get a chance to use that potion after all. The Sommerswerd deflects Zahda's initial attack, and its Combat Skill bonus brings me close enough to his level that I might just survive the subsequent fight. Still, I now wish I'd not put all my Combat Skill-enhancing items into storage at the start of the adventure. Though really I should be wishing the decision that got me into this mess in the first place had been better worded.

The first round of combat goes badly for me, but after that I get the upper hand, and by the end of the fight I'm only just below half of my maximum Endurance. Zahda falls into the pit around the throne, and (after downing that potion just to be on the safe side) I smash the Doomstone, causing molten lava to jet from the pit. Do I leave the way I came in or seek an alternate exit? Checking for something else, I find a symbol carved on the throne which activates an anti-gravity beam leading to surface level. I grab the Lorestone (which restores all my missing Endurance anyway), and step into the beam.

The fortress starts to collapse around me as I ascend, but the beam maintains its integrity until I arrive in a ruined temple near the castle keep gatehouse. Lightning lashes the disintegrating Kazan-Oud, and some way below, I see the lake. I'm pretty sure that diving in leads to the 'boiled alive' ending I mentioned before, so I head down some damaged stone steps to the jetty where Kasin concealed his boat.

Many of the fortress' residents are also trying to escape. I sustain no damage in the melee, but do lose my Backpack and everything in it (which is why I put so much into storage at the start of the adventure). The description of my triumphant arrival at the jetty is a little perturbing: the contrast between my appearance and that of Zahda's minions may be intended to evoke pulp tropes, but there's a nasty hint of white supremacism in there.

Let's just think about the Mongoose edit relating to that concentrated healing potion again. It established that the potion could only be used after a fight, so a badly wounded Lone Wolf would have been unable to take it before battling Zahda, when it might have come in handy. And a quick check of all possible courses of action that can be taken after finding the potion establishes that, what with the Lorestone-induced Endurance boost, there is no point between fighting Zahda and losing the Backpack (in which the potion must be carried) at which the healing provided by the potion would matter. So the edit has made the potion utterly unnecessary. Nice work, everyone concerned.

Getting back to the climax of the book, I make it to Kasin's boat and escape the doomed fortress. A hero's welcome awaits me outside the magical barrier, and a local dignitary indicates that he and I are related, and the Elder Magi have much to teach me regarding the next Lorestone I seek. Which will be covered in the next book in the series.

In case anyone else cares about the ongoing 'section 291' in-joke, in this book the relevant section describes one of the ways in which Lone Wolf can fail to save the life of Tavig, the viewpoint character of the mini-adventure accompanying the Mongoose edition of Castle Death.

Now I've beaten Castle Death again, I'm not sure what to make of it. It has some decent set pieces (one I missed on this occasion is the gruesome encounter with a brain-eating disembodied hand), but I'm not keen on the unavoidability of the 'captured and sent to the maze' sequence, and the compulsory Backpack loss at the end is just annoying.

As a Lone Wolf book, it lacks the scope of the rest of the series. Travel between locations has been a big part of every preceding adventure, and will be again in the rest of the series. This book just has the voyage to Herdos in the 'The story so far...' bit, and the lake crossings in sections 1 and 350. Everything else takes place in or just outside the one structure. The magical barrier around the fortress also diminishes the scale of the threat Lone Wolf is going up against. In the first five books the fates of whole countries hung in the balance. Book 6 played out against the backdrop of a war. And then this was 'find and kill the bad guy we trapped in here'. By the series' standards it's just small and petty. Still, this is (as far as I'm aware) a one-off aberration, and I'm through it now.

Monday, 20 October 2014

This Thing Should Have Died Long Ago

I acquired Terrors Out of Time, the second of Ian and Clive Bailey's Forbidden Gateway gamebooks, at the same time and place as I did the first. As I initially played it without dice, and the only decisions leading to certain death are rather obviously bad ideas, I made it to the end on my first attempt. It took longer to win by the rules: while not quite as harsh as Where the Shadows Stalk, it still has several unavoidable 'do or die' rolls, and when even a character with the maximum possible stats has a 1 in 6 chance of failing any roll, that makes the odds of winning fairly slim. When I ran the adventure for a group at rpg.net, unfavourable dice and the occasional unwise decision meant that they didn't succeed until their twelfth attempt.

Had my character in Shadows not gone insane in a dream (incidentally, I once dreamed that I came across a third Forbidden Gateway book involving zombies, but in the real world there are, alas, only the two), I might have gone on to save the world from Lovecraftian monstrosities, in the process acquiring a small pyramid made of crystal, with a design of an Ouroboros-esque dragon embedded in it. The first FG book ends on a minor cliffhanger, as the pyramidion is stolen by someone with taloned hands, who reaches in through a second-floor window to grab the artefact as I contemplate it.

Interestingly, Terrors starts shortly before the ending of Shadows, with an account (by an unspecified narrator) of the thief's breaking out of the British Museum, shrouding himself in the ambient mist, and heading for my character's home. Only with the jump to a new section does the viewpoint shift to that of my character, where it will stay for the remainder of the book. So as my character gets the focus, it's time to determine his stats:
Strength 5
Stamina 10
Mentality 5
Endurance 10
Dexterity 9
Well, this post should take a lot less time to write than my previous one.

As I sit in contemplation of the small pyramid, a tendril of mist drifts through the open window, followed by the thieving hand from the end of the previous book. Dashing to the window, I see the thief crawling down the vertical wall, and jumping to the ground. A hideous face looks back at me for a moment, and then thefigure is off. I grab my coat and a swordstick, and give chase. By the time I reach ground level, there's no sign of the thief, but a creaking hinge draws my attention to the museum door, so I go through it.

The next two choices are utterly pointless, except insofar as they help bring the total number of sections in the book up to 375. My first proper encounter with the thief will proceed in exactly the same manner regardless of which staircase I ascend, and whether or not I spend several minutes fumbling with locked doors and heading into a dead end. I'd have preferred it if the Baileys had ditched the choice of staircase and used the extra section to include some minor adverse consequence of taking the wrong turning at the top of the stairs, consequently giving the thief more time to make his preparations.

Anyway, I reach the Egyptian Rooms, where I find the thief crouched in fromt of an open display case containing a sarcophagus. I try to sneak up on him, but even though I'm rolling against my only decent stat, I still fail, treading on a squeaky floorboard that alerts the thief to my presence. He dashes towards the sarcophagus, flinging a stream of golden particles in the direction of a nearby mummy. For a moment I catch hold of him - long enough to note his emaciated appearance, excessive number of teeth, and red-rimmed eyes. He pulls free, dives into the sarcophagus, and vanishes.

Though shaken by the sight I just glimpsed, I am not excessively traumatised. I don't cope so well when that mummy animates and starts shambling towards me, though, and while I'm gaping, it catches up to me and attempts to overpower me. The attack takes less than 66 seconds, but is resolved by a Dexterity contest, and the mummy isn't that agile, so I manage to break free. I could now try fighting it, but I don't have to, I'm not sure there's much to be gained by doing so, and it can't be long before the broken door onto the street attracts the attention of the Police, so I think I'll just run for it.

It's not that simple, of course. The mummy turns out to be blocking the exit, so I have to wrestle it out of the way to get out. That takes a contest of Strength, and my Strength is as much below the mummy's as his Dexterity is under mine. Unsurprisingly, I fail to overcome my opponent, and it manages to get its arms around me. My struggles are in vain, and the mummy begins to drain my Strength. I have one more chance to try and break free before I become so weak as to fail all subsequent rolls in this fight, and only a double 1 will save me. I don't get it, and soon everything goes black...

Incidentally, the structuring of this section is a bit misleading. It's split over two pages - two sides of the same sheet of paper, rather than facing pages. The last paragraph of the first side explains what must transpire for the reader to completely lose this fight, and gives the number for the section to which to turn if this occurs. However, it doesn't say, 'If this should happen, turn to...' or words to that effect. It just says 'Turn to...' And as the list of choices that can be taken if the reader should succeed at a Strength conflict roll is over the page, it's possible that a reader might not realise that the instruction at the bottom of the page only applies in the case of total defeat, turn to the wrong section, and get an undeserved fail ending.

Talking of which, consciousness returns. The mummy didn't kill me. But it incapacitated me long enough for the Police to arrive, so I'm going to be assisting them with their enquiries rather than trying to prevent the thief from using the pyramidion to bring about the end of the world. Oh, well, at least I lasted slightly longer than the rpg.net crowd on their first attempt at the book.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

To Choose Another's Form and Make It Thine

I'm getting out of the pretty dismal state I've been in for much of the year. It's unlikely that I'll be able to get back to the 'three posts a week' routine that used to be standard, but this should be the point at which updates to the blog start to become more regular again.

For around a decade after moving away from Swansea, I continued to visit it quite frequently. During one of these visits, there was an afternoon on which I found myself at a loose end. I'd done the rounds of the local charity shops and found little of interest in the book sections, and those of my friends who still lived there had jobs, and were at work, so I couldn't interact with any of them until evening. Then I remembered the little library on Bernard Street (which Google Street View reveals to no longer be a library, alas). I'd been a regular customer there during the year after graduation, and in the course of my visits I had often spotted a copy of one of the FF books that came out after I stopped collecting the series. Back then I'd always left it on the display stand, as that was one of the periods when I was most strongly 'off' gamebooks. Nevertheless, the cover image, depicting sinister pumpkin-headed figures stalking through the rain, had lodged in my memory, and by the time of this visit, my interest in the genre was waxing again, so I decided to fill at least some of the time I had on my hands by going back to the library to see if the book was still there.

It wasn't. I don't know whether it had been withdrawn or just borrowed by a member, but either way, it had left the building. Indeed, I never did get my hands on a copy of that particular book until the discovery that got me back into gamebooks big-time. But tucked away in the little alcove where they kept the children's books, there was one book with a spine of that distinctive green, and it was one I'd never seen before, so I took it, found a chair, and spent until close to closing time investigating Keith P. Phillips' sole contribution to Fighting Fantasy, Siege of Sardath.

I attempted the book (without dice) twice, on both occasions falling victim to a flock of the villain's winged minions. I also flicked through the book in search of particularly juicy-looking deaths, and was none too impressed to find that there were a lot of very similar-looking bad endings. It wasn't a bad book, and it enabled me to fill that afternoon, but it didn't grab me enough to make me want to find another copy and play until I beat it, and I pretty much forgot about it until I wound up deciding to collect the whole series.

Siege was actually the FF book it took me longest to acquire once I'd begun collecting in earnest. In the end, it was the online gamebook trading network that enabled me to get a copy of the book. I got it from someone in Australia, in exchange for a copy of Steve Jackson's novel The Trolltooth Wars, and received it 50 weeks (to the day) after I bought the seven FF books that got me back into the series in the first place. I have yet to win it (it has a decidedly narrow 'true path'), but I have been making gradual progress towards finding out what needs doing.

I'd be interested to see my character's CV, if such things existed on Titan. An adventurer (as usual), but also a councillor. Skilled in forest lore (handy, as the town of Grimmund, where I fulfil my civic duties is right next to the Forest of Night), and a friend of the local Elves. The adventure starts with a dream that has me fleeing a malignant forest and reaching a mountain that splits open to disgorge a vast army of dark soldiers. This is, of course, significant - dreams in gamebooks (and fiction in general) are rarely just the sort of random strangeness that goes on in most people's heads while they sleep.

A Council messenger wakes me with a summons to an emergency meeting. A traveller from Zengis, by the name of Morn Preeler, has just arrived bearing ominous news. Apparently the Forest has become hostile, cutting Grimmund off from the city of Sardath. The paths have become overgrown, or blocked by Giant Spiders' webs, while the aquatic Slykk and unspecified monsters have made passage by river impossible. The rest of the Council wish to respond with fire, but I protest, citing the balance of nature and expressing my conviction that the source of the threat is from elsewhere. Preeler suggests that he can convince me of the truth of his claims with a more detailed account of his experiences, and the two of us adjourn to a separate room where he can recount his tale at length. As it turns out, he doesn't have a lot to say, but it does end the background section on a magnificent cliffhanger: 'When I was travelling through the Forest, I was accosted and killed by a powerful creature. He then assumed my form and came here in order to kill the only person left in the Forest who had any chance of thwarting the plans of his people!'

So what does the only serious opposition to the villains look like, stats-wise? I shall be allocating dice because I know of one rather nasty fight that I shall have to get into if I want even a shot at winning.
Skill: 12
Stamina: 15
Luck: 10
If I'd taken the dice as they fell, Skill and Luck would have been the other way round. When (if) I get to that fight, I'll keep an eye on the rolls and see how it would have panned out for a character 'as rolled'.

Preeler's killer/impersonator grabs my Council ring, the one thing on me that he wouldn't be able to duplicate, and starts to transform into a bat-winged, dark-taloned monstrosity. Every time I've attempted this book before now, I've fought the impostor, but earlier this year I learned that fleeing is apparently the better choice, so I'll try that for once. I dash back towards the Council Chamber, the fake Preeler gives chase, and the fall of the dice determines that he catches up with me and I have to fight anyway. Great.

Because I ran and he pursued me, we grapple rather than use weapons, and the initial round of combat inflicts no damage, but determines who gets the advantage. My higher Skill prevails, enabling me to break free choose what to do next. Running would mean another roll like the one that went so poorly, so I try to capture my opponent. That too involves a round of damage-free combat (two, in fact, as the first is a tie), and I successfully subdue him for long enough to get my sword at his throat. I invite him to surrender, and he takes his own life to prevent interrogation.

Examining the corpse, I note that it is like a Dark Elf in some regards. I retrieve my ring, and search the impostor's pack, finding three bottles with numbered labels, each obviously a component of something magical. Their precise function is unclear, but as two of them have been taken from the bodies of creatures with powerful natural camouflage abilities, it's almost certainly something to do with impersonating others.

I return to the Council Chamber to point out the flaws in the faux-Preeler's argument, and explain that I'm going to have to seek out the real enemy single-handed because it is the gamebook way. I then get some rest and, as the passage of time has a part to play in the outcome of the adventure, update the 'Day of the Week' check. As I prepare to set off, the leader of the Council gives me a four-leaf clover for good luck (also providing a non-obvious way for the book to check on whether or not 'Preeler' is still alive and able to impersonate me).

Before leaving town I call on my old friend Liam Astromonius, the local astrologer. He has been unable to discern anything about my future, but mentions that he has yet to try one hazardous ritual, which no non-magician has ever witnessed and survived. Sounds like a laugh, so I tell Liam to proceed. Though displeased at my risk-taking, he invites me into his spell chamber, where he uses a silver sceptre to knock on a mirror three times. Rather unimpressive, as dangerous rituals of great power go. Still, it works, summoning a divine messenger known as a Suma, who advises me to seek a tomb in the Forest, and warns that I will need an amulet. In the accompanying illustration, he's wearing an amulet like the one I seek, which for some strange reason hangs down at a weird angle. For years its positioning relative to the frame of the mirror (combined with its roundness) made me think it was a door-handle, but then I noticed the chain it was on. And remembered that mirrors don't generally have door-handles.

As I'm leaving the village, a horse-drawn wagon emerges from the Forest, and the driver asks if I want to buy any of his potions. Considering the trouble people have had getting through the Forest of late, I find this suspicious, and tell him I'm not interested. He gets desperate, admits that he only pretended to have just come through the Forest to give the impression that his wares were fresher than they are, and offers me a free gift if I'll buy something from him. I accept this offer, and he hands over a large bottle of a mystery potion - even the trader doesn't know what it actually does, though he is aware that it's harmful, and advises me to throw it at something hostile.

Turning my attention to his wares, I notice that a couple of substances are numbered according to the same system as the bottles I acquired from the late not-Preeler. Indeed, one of them is identical to the contents of the first bottle. The other, Powdered Pegasus Feathers, is not cheap, and doesn't look likely to be of use in an instant disguise potion, so I disregard it in favour of phials of Snapperfish Oil and Sleeping Draught. I could also afford a potion or two, though most of the ones in stock are different strengths of Love Potion, numbered according to potency. The strongest variant is number 5 (not 9), but if I get number 2, I can also afford a Potion of Fortune, which may be useful if I wind up needing to use Luck a lot.

Once I've made my purchases, I carry on to the harbour, which shows serious signs of neglect. My boat is still in usable condition, so I set off along the River Sardath. Someone has cut down the rope bridge across the river, but I have no trouble navigating around the remains. When darkness falls, I stop at a handy clearing and settle down for the night. This leads to one of the more annoying aspects of the book - a decison (and not the only one) that shouldn't be offered, as my character knows the best course of action. But the choice is still there, and picking the wrong option will lead to mockery and punishment. Having learned from past errors, I now know as much as my character as regards these shouldn't-even-be-a-choices, but the whole 'Why did you do something you know to be so stupid?' thing just makes me want to ask the author, 'Well, why did you suggest I might want to do it if I knew it was such a bad idea?'

While preparing to make camp, I see two winged creatures landing somewhere to the south-west. I think this is a point at which the narrowness of the 'true path' through the book kicks in: I will need to go to where they've just landed, but if I do so right now, I suspect that I'll miss out on something important or essential, so I just turn in.

During the night, I wake to find that a Giant Spider is approaching me with hostile intent. Will shooting an arrow at it help at all? Not really, as this is a Giant Spitting Spider, and my taking time to draw, load and fire the bow gives the Spider an opportunity to spew a mass of web at me. My Skill is high enough that I'm not immobilised by the web, and can extricate myself in time to fight off the assailing arachnid, but it's a little tiresome that my detailed knowledge of the Forest's fauna failed to alert me to the Spider's capabilities back when it would have been useful to know.

Continuing on my way the following morning, I see signs that I am being watched by amphibians. My boat's rudder gets tangled in weeds, which my forest lore skills enable me to recognise as River Bloodweed - just after I stick my hand into the water and lose about an armful of blood to the vampiric vegetation. The suggested ways of dealing with the Bloodweed include at least one more 'as you are well aware, that is an idiotic thing to do' option, but I think that may be the last one.

A little later I become aware that I am being watched again, but the creature spying on me fails to notice that I've noticed it. I could try shooting at it, but as I have yet to see any clear signs of hostile intent, I think attacking would be premature. My watcher submerges, and I carry on until I reach undisputed Slykk territory, at which point several of the batrachian humanoids surround me. Their leader indicates to the others that they should not attack (yet), and makes gestures that could be interpreted as either a desire for non-hostile interaction or a challenge to a duel. I go for the more diplomatic response, and a Slykk seer named Rurkk uses his limited grasp of my language to translate the ensuing dialogue. It transpires that their tribe was also infiltrated by one of fake-Preeler's kind, which Rurkk was able to identify as an impostor. Rurkk gives me the one item they found on the body, a leather-wrapped bundle, and the Slykk all depart.

Opening the bundle, I find it to contain half a dozen ivory squares with patterns carved on them. They're represented in an illustration, as figuring out the correct way to fit them together is a puzzle. I recently scanned the relevant page, as removing it from the book and cutting out the squares would deprive me of section 277, which may be an important one. With the help of a little three-dimensional thinking, plus a spot of image-rotation in Paint, I manage to line up the carvings in the right way, and some of the shapes formed look a lot like numbers, so I turn to the section indicated.

The shapes also resemble letters, and my character says the word that they spell out. This is, incidentally, the name of one of the big bads from an epically cheesy fantasy saga I read back in my teens, and I can't help but wonder if Mr. Phillips read it too, as the entity summoned by my speaking the name is a similar sort of creature - though constrained to assist me, rather than being something I have to fight. He's invisible to everyone but me and Demons, and will fight alongside me in any combat unless I tell him not to. Given that:
  1. He takes a set amount of damage every time he aids me in battle
  2. He cannot be healed, and 
  3. I failed my most successful attempt at this book to date on account of not having his assistance
I think I'll try to keep him out of all but the most dangerous fights. No point in wasting him on a bunch of Skill 6 no-hopers.
At this point I think the wisest course of action would be to leave the river and start heading towards where the winged creatures landed last night. Along the way I find some healing herbs, which I add to my inventory. Towards dusk I reach the Elf-path through the Forest, which leads to the village of Ash Cleeve. Knowing how Elves tend to react to incursions into their territory, I stop and wait to be met. While waiting I think about Sorrel, the Elf who taught me archery and forest lore in return for swordfighting lessons, in the course of which he acquired a scar. I can only guess that either he wanted a scar in order to look tougher or I was about as good a sparring partner as he was a teacher of how to recognise Giant Spitting Spiders and River Bloodweed, because there's no real need for training in swordplay to result in a gash across the eye.

The anticipated reception committee arrives, headed up by Sorrel, who accuses me of being an impostor and has the others aim their bows at me. Except that the illustration shows the scar to be over the wrong eye, indicating to any attentive reader that Sorrel is no more Sorrel than Preeler was Preeler. Convincing the other Elves of this could be tricky, though, so I decide to simplify matters by shooting fake-Sorrel right in the giveaway. While slow to react to the sight of me getting out my bow, loading an arrow, and firing at their leader, the Elves respond pretty much instantaneously when the wound causes not-Sorrel to revert to his true appearance, and in seconds he's dead. Apologies follow, and I'm given a Snake Ring with a doubtless significant number of coils as compensation.

Another two of those flying creatures, named Black Flyers by the Elves, swoop down into the Forest, and tonight I do investigate. After a while I come across them attempting to force open a stone door set into a mound. Up close I can see that they look a lot like not-Preeler did when he shed his disguise. I remember from past attempts at the book that if I spy on them for a bit, they'll attempt to blow the door open with some kind of explosive, only to have it backfire and spread them across the clearing. But is there anything useful or important to be gained by attacking them before they can save me the need for combat? There's only one way to find out... FIIIIIGHT!

Even without the assistance of my monstrous companion, I have no trouble defeating them. Alas, as the second one hits the ground, he breaks the explosive he was carrying, and I only just have time to get out of blast range, so there's no loot to be had from this fight. At least I know for next time.

An engraving on the door indicates the mound to be the tomb I was advised to seek, and warns of a dire fate for intruders. On account of the Suma's message, and the fact that the Black Flyers have made more than one attempt at breaking in, I try to get in anyway. Rather than waste time searching for a secret entrance, I simply bash on the stone door a few times, thereby inadvertently performing the same rite that Liam did back in his spell chamber, which happens to be the way of getting the door to open. Believe it or not, that's actually the least ridiculous way of finding out how to gain access to the tomb!

Inside I find an upright sarcophagus with no lid, containing the mummified body of the seer Khornu Wych, dressed in ornate robes and wearing an amulet. Not the amulet I saw on the Suma, but I have to take this one in order to be able to get the one I actually need. As soon as I remove it, the body crumbles to dust and Wych's ghost begins to appear in its place. Through the translucent form of the manifesting spectre I catch sight of the outline of a secret door in the back of the sarcophagus, but at the moment I can't get to it without coming into contact with the ghost, which would not be good for my health. Lacking a weapon capable of inflicting damage on such an entity, I retreat to the tomb entrance, which has closed behind me. Gloating, the ghost advances on me, and I dodge around it and into the now vacated sarcophagus, pushing open the secret door.

As I step through, part of the tomb collapses behind me, blocking off  the way back. The good news is that that somehow prevents the ghost from coming after me. The less good news is that there are no other exits from the chamber into which I have stepped. Better news is that the chamber does contain Wych's real treasure: two goblets of liquid, a shiny silver shield, and a golden amulet engraved with an image of a Brain Slayer on fire. That's the amulet I need, so I take it. It's made of solid gold, and consequently rather heavy, and wearing it carries a Skill penalty. Oddly, just carrying it in my backpack circumvents the penalty, but the amulet's effects only work when it's worn, so if I survive to the endgame, I'll have to try and guess when I've had my last fight/Skill check, so I can don the amulet before the confrontation in which I need it.

Incidentally, I had to succeed at a Skill roll in order to spot that secret door, and only passed by a narrow margin. Apparently, if I'd already been wearing the amulet when the ghost turned up (yes, I know that I couldn't have been because of the sequence of events, but that's irrelevant to the point I'm trying to make), I would have been unable to make out the outline of the doorway on account of the weight hanging around my neck.  Which doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me.

Enough ranting. time to get back to the treasure. As I recall, the contents of one goblet are beneficial, while what's in the other will harm me. Can I remember which is which? Yes, I get the right one, which restores the Stamina I lost to that weed way back at the start of the day. So, ignoring the unhelpful drink, that leaves only the shield. Which is so shiny that there's a Mirror Demon in it, and as soon as I reach for the shield, she is summoned, emerging from the reflective surface to attack.

Being a Demon, she can see my otherwise invisible companion. Who apparently has another number associated with him, apart from the one that helped me to acquire his services, as there aren't enough sections in the book to use that one in the calculation that will identify the section to which I should be turning at this point. Oh well, at least I know where to look to find what I must have missed... Ah, he's 'the Twelfth and Last of the Veiled Guardians'. That detail could and should have been made less easy to overlook.

The Demon attempts to persuade the Veiled Guardian to abandon me and side with her, but it turns out that the only way he can be released from his exile is to die in my service, and he attacks her. I'm okay with his getting into this fight, as it's the nasty one I mentioned earlier - if I were her opponent, she'd only need to win one round of combat to defeat me. And as she does win the third round of her fight against my proxy (who, coincidentally, has the same Skill and Stamina that I do), only his having taken my place prevents the adventure from ending here.

When the Demon dies, the shield shatters, revealing a tunnel that leads out of the mound. The rest of the tomb starts to collapse, so I make a rapid exit, having to knock three times again when I reach the far end of the tunnel, and emerging into the Forest just before the whole structure caves in.

I spend what remains of the night asleep, but nightmares about Colrhyn, another friend, keep me from getting much rest. Suspecting that he is in some kind of peril, I spend the whole of the next day heading towards his home, only covering about two thirds of the distance before it starts getting dark. Considering how hostile the Forest is supposed to have been made, travel through it has been mighty low on incident.

Anyway, I make camp for the night, sleep better, and wonder if the nightmares were not premonitions but a consequence of the run-in with the ghost. Having come this far, I keep going just in case, and have a run-in with a Giant Wolf Spider. It's okay, Veiled Guardian, I can handle this opponent myself. Right? Right - I take one wound, but nothing serious.

Further along I reach a fork in the path, and the map in the front of the book indicates which turning one leads to Colrhyn's home, so I go that way, musing on my friend as I go. I'm distracted by the sight of something red, which turns out to be mould on a log. Then a sound behind me alerts me to the approaching Mould Zombie. Observant readers are likely to notice a distinct similarity between the figure depicted in the illustration for this section and the description of Colrhyn provided when my character started thinking about him.

This is definitely a fight in which I do not want any assistance: in a rather nasty twist, defeating the Zombie too quickly (which is only possible if I have help or use Luck) has lethal consequences. I hit the thing a couple of times, and then discover that the Mould is starting to spread up my leg. Time to see what that Mystery Potion the trader gave me does. I throw the bottle at the main cluster of Mould, which withers where splashed by the contents. What remains of the Mould retreats, not only from me, but also from the Zombie. None too surprisingly, the man revealed by the departure of the Mould is Colrhyn, in a pretty poor state, but still alive, and no longer compelled to attack me.

I give Colrhyn some healing herbs, take him to his cabin to recuperate, and seek his assistance in my quest. He tells me that Corianthus the Storm Giant, the greatest scholar in the region, should have some idea of what is going on. To identify me to Corianthus as a friend, Colrhyn gives me his key to the Giant's library. Before falling asleep, Colrhyn also tells me to help myself to his stuff, so I take a rope and more herbs, and refill my quiver.

Returning to the main Forest trail, I remember the mountain from my dream, and head away from the Forest and towards mountainous territory. It's getting dark by the time I reach the Fangthane Road, so I make camp for the night. In the morning the sound of an approaching wagon wakes me. The driver is a Fangthane Dwarf, on his way to Sardath. I advise him to find somewhere less hazardous to do his trading, and explain some of what's going on in the region. In return, he gives me an Encyclopaedia of Subterranean Flora, just in case I ever need to go underground, and draws my attention to the page on dangerous fungi. Slightly oddly, one of the fungi listed on the page is only actually harmful to Rock Grubs and Giant Spiders, two species not renowned for literacy. They other type mentioned is at least lethal to Dark Elves, but conspicuous by their absence are the sorts of fungus that I should avoid for the good of my health.

I leave the road and make for the mountains, and it is about here that my knowledge of the book becomes hazardously patchy. Up ahead is a steep ridge, so I must detour around it, and going the wrong way is liable to prove fatal in the long run. I'll try west. This path eventually leads to a landing-stage by the River Sardath. Many rafts are moored there, most of them in too bad a condition to be usable. I don't think I even want to risk taking the one exception, so instead I follow the other path leading away from the landing-stage. This leads to a junction, and one of the paths leads to a storm-lashed mountain that I'm pretty sure I need to visit at some point, so I head that way.

After a while the ascent becomes difficult, but I persist until, with a particularly impressive burst of lightning and thunder, a figure in black robes appears in front of me. I show respect, and the being identifies herself as Thyra Migurn (referring to herself in the third person, which is an ominous sign if ever I saw one). She disapproves of my being here, but I risk asking what she knows about the Black Flyers. This causes her temper to flare up, in a burst of lightning that atomises the robes and comes close to injuring me. It turns out that she really dislikes Dark Elves and, upon learning that I oppose them, she provides me with a Lightning Sphere to use against them, then warns me to leave before she gets really annoyed. I descend, and follow the first track I find until I reach another junction. One way probably leads back to the river, and there's an item check on the other path. Could be a 'have you already been this way and taken certain actions?' check rather than an 'if you don't have the Red Gem, you die' one, so I'll investigate.

Well, nothing terminal has happened just yet. I see a cave, with inexpertly concealed tracks leading into it. Possibly left by Dwarfs, though I'm not sure what would make Dwarf tracks easily distinguishable from the tracks of any other footwear-using humanoid race. In any case, I check them out. The cave turns out to be a mine entrance, and I use the crude lift at the back to descend into the shaft. At the bottom, three passages lead on, two of them marked with signs warning of poisonous fungi. The two types listed in the book, handily enough. I think the Dark Elf-proofed tunnel might be worth investigating. The fungi release spores as I pass through them, but I am unaffected.

A couple of Dwarf guards are waiting at the end. They're pleased to see someone from outside, and take me to their leader, Lokimur. He gives me a Red Gem (so I was right about the purpose of that item check) and asks me who I am. I explain my quest in some detail, and he explains that he's gathered the mining community together for mutual protection. They still suffer nocturnal assaults by Black Flyers, and daily attacks by Toa-Suo. I ask him what he knows of Corianthus, and get directions to the Giant's home. There's time for one more question, so I ask about the Toa-Suo. These creatures are from further north, but have been brought here by the Black Flyers, attacking in large groups that can easily overwhelm individual opponents.

A Dwarf brings news of a fresh attack by the Toa-Suo, and I decide to see if I can help repel them. The Dwarfs don't have many archers, so I'll add my bow to their ranks. They have plenty of spare arrows, and I kill an impressive number of the attackers. Towards nightfall, the lead archer has me follow her back into the tunnels. I am advised to stay here until morning, as Black Flyers patrol the region at night, and offer to help keep watch. The duty officer adds me to the rota, and I get a little rest before my shift.

I reach my post just as the guards are welcoming in a near-dead Dwarven refugee. Suspicious, I quietly tell the closest guard about the impostors I've encountered, and he asks the newcomer a few questions. Judging by the way he follows up the questions with a swift warhammer in the face, I'm guessing that that Dwarf was no Dwarf. Either that or he's the viewpoint character of the Dwarven edition of Siege of Sardath, and answering the questions is one of that book's 'present the reader with a choice even though the character would just know what to do' moments.

There's a time check here, but I haven't wasted any time, so when morning comes I am able to resume my adventuring. A Dwarf takes me back to the surface, and I follow the directions to the mountain where Corianthus lives. It's a nice straightforward journey, up until the point at which a Giant Eagle swoops towards me. Colrhyn mentioned that Corianthus' best friend is a Giant Eagle, so I wave the library key at the bird to deter it from attacking. rather awkwardly, the Eagle indicates that it will carry me to where I want to go, so I ask to be taken to Corianthus.

The Eagle carries me to the roof of a massive castle way up on the mountain. Once I'm on solid ground, the Eagle starts scratching at a trapdoor and screeching. Unfriendly voices from below challenge the bird to come back at night and suffer its master's fate, from which I deduce that things have gone badly for Corianthus, and the beings occupying his castle don't like sunlight. The second of my deductions is confirmed when the Eagle triggers the opening mechanism for the trapdoor, letting light into the room below, and the taunting gives way to shrieks of pain.

I risk taking a look at the suffering intruders, and they're too busy fleeing the light to send any projectiles my way. They are Dark Elves, and one leaves the room by a door to the left, several others going right. I tie my rope to a battlement and climb down. The room turns out to be an observatory, with a telescope pointing at the trapdoor. There are three doors leading out, two of them with signs on them. The lone Dark Elf went into the Games Room, while the others went through the unmarked door, suggesting that the Library is locked. Not a problem, as I have a key. And I'll try the library first because that's probably the best place to learn things.

Being a Giant's library, it has large furniture. I have to climb onto the chair in order to reach the top of the table. On which I find a book, a sheet of paper, and a dish of mercury. The paper is an unfinished letter, from which I learn that the dish of mercury is a method of communication, and Corianthus recently acquired a device to help him create transformation potions. The last paragraph mentions a strange noise from the laboratory, which Corianthus was going to investigate. I'm not sure why he felt the need to note that he'd be away from the page for a bit, as he could just have resumed where he left off when he got back (if he hadn't fallen foul of Dark Elves), with no apparent interruption. This blog post has been written over the course of several sessions, and I'd be impressed if anyone were to successfully guess where I stopped writing last time and started today. Still, 'I'll just go and check' is preferable to the sort of 'Oh no, they've just burst through the door and are coming for me!' nonsense often found as the last line of fictional letters interrupted by the arrival of someone or something nasty.

The book has one page marked, so I turn to that and find instructions for using the Triplex Potion Concocter. I imagine it will be useful to know which ingredient goes in which aperture when I want to make my own potion.

When I focus my attention on the mercury, the pool goes dark and two eyes appear in it. A voice sounds in my head, asking me to whom I wish to speak. I name the leader of the Elves I met in the Forest, and his face appears. When I speak, he hears me, and once the confusion has passed, I explain what has happened since our last encounter, and he reveals that a group of the Wood Elves has reached the mountains, ready to attack the Dark Elves. He advises me to try and get into the Dark Elves' base and free their slaves. The ring I received at our previous encounter changes its size in response to Elven magic (and to indicate that I've had this conversation).

I try using the pool to contact a few others, with varied results. Colrhyn is fast asleep and unreachable. The leader of Sardath's armed forces reports that they're holding off the attackers, but will need help. Corianthus is still alive, but using all his strength to try and resist a Sorcerer, so chat is not an option. To speak with Liam I must pass an item check to establish whether or not I defeated pseudo-Preeler, but this turns out to be the most worthwhile call: the astrologer has been researching the amulet the Suma told me about, and has learned that it absorbs mental attacks, and can be modified to reflect such attacks on whoever made them. When we conclude our communication, I make the necessary changes to the amulet.

The library has two exits - the door by which I entered, and one marked 'Laboratory'. I've not yet seen any instructions stating that I can't return to a part of this castle that I've already visited, but the lab could be a point of no return, so I shall delay entering it until I've done a bit more investigating. I'm not sure exactly how many Dark Elves went through the unmarked door, but the prospect of being outnumbered does not appeal, so I go back through the observatory and follow the lone Dark Elf who went into the Games Room.

My opening the door causes sunlight to stream into the room, forcing the Dark Elf to flee into the shadows. He distracts me with some blather about formal greetings in the Dark Elf tongue, and throws something at the door to close it, after which he attacks me. It's another fight in which I need no assistance. Searching the room, I find lots of gaming paraphernalia of no relevance to the adventure, and a mathematical puzzle that hasn't quite been completed. While it uses higher numbers than usual, it's just another Magic Square, and filling in the missing number causes a secret door to open.

The secret door leads to a storeroom. The Dark Elves might not have been able to open the door, but they still got in by making a hole in a wall, so the room's been pretty thoroughly looted. Not quite completely, though: there's still an intact bottle containing another numbered potion component, and it's one I don't yet have. So now I have four of the things, though (as the 'Triplex' in the title of the Potion Concocter implies) I only need three. Still, the instructions I read narrow down the number of possible combinations to just two possibilities, and one of the substances between which I must choose looks a lot better suited to a transformation potion than the other.

After reclosing the secret door by removing the solution to the puzzle, I return to the library via the observatory and try the door to the laboratory. A hole in the wall leading to a tunnel suggests that the noise which distracted Corianthus was the Dark Elves breaking in. Predictably, the Potion Concocter is here. A previous owner of the book has written component numbers on the machine's funnels in the illustration (okay, so the book suggests doing so, but that doesn't make it any less annoying that it happened), and it looks to me as if the guilty party took at least four tries to get the correct combination. When you figure in the (probable) red herring ingredient available from the trader outside Grimmund, I can see how four different mixes are possible, but it's impressive (and not in a good way) that my predecessor seems to have got every wrong one first. Especially as the names of the different substances provide hints as to their relevance to a transformation potion, making this less of a blind choice than the recipe for Anti-Zanbar Formula.

I put the most likely ingredients into the appropriate funnels, and get a potion out. Drinking it causes me to feel uncomfortable and itchy, and parts of my body try to change shape, but there's no lasting effect until I return to the Games Room, at which point I change to look like the Dark Elf I fought there. I then hide his body in the library, the sunlight in the observatory making me uncomfortable but doing no real harm as I'm still basically human.

Now it should be safe to follow the other Dark Elves. Except that there are at least ten of them in the room just beyond the unmarked door, and while I no longer look human, my having come through the sunlit observatory unscathed enables them to figure out that I'm not what I appear to be, and they attack anyway. Against that many, not even the Veiled Guardian can help me.

A slightly frustrating ending, but I've learned a fair bit about what to do (and a couple of things not to do), so as long as the dice don't let me down, I should be able to get further on my next try, whenever that is. Maybe not much further, as I haven't a clue as to the correct sequence of events beyond the point I reached this time, but I've never made it to the castle before (for some stupid reason I opted to have the Eagle fly me straight to the Black Flyers' base the only previous time I got to show it the key), and I did more right than wrong in the castle. It just so happened that when I did go wrong, I did so in a manner that proved fatal to me.