Monday, 1 December 2014

I Don't Think Much of Your Hospitality

I have memories of reading some of The Jungle of Horrors, the eighth of Joe Dever's Lone Wolf books, at my grandparents' home, and vague impressions suggesting that that was during a school holiday rather than on a normal Friday. These recollections mainly focus on the voyage by river that can be taken during the book, and as I'm planning on taking that route again for this playthrough, I shan't say any more about those sequences until I reach them in this attempt at the book.

I also remember reading the final section, which enabled me to finally get the point of something I'd read in an unrelated gamebook some time before. That one was the first of the Zork gamebooks, a series which made so little an impact on me that I've never bothered trying to get my own copies. The one detail that did grab my attention was the anti-cheater ending: a check for an item not available in the book, which sent readers claiming to have the object in question to a fail ending where they were reprimanded for their misbehaviour. This reprimand included a comment along the lines of, 'You're probably the type of person that reads the last section first, too.' When I came across that section while flicking through the book (in a branch of WHSmith, as I recall), I couldn't see what was so bad about reading the ending ahead of time. But in Jungle, the final section makes the correct decision in the book's last choice obvious. Not that it would have been that tricky to work out even without advance knowledge of the ending, but the experience made me more wary of such looking ahead from then on.

Jungle was also the book in which I experienced one of the most frustrating failures of my early nineties 'play through the whole series in order, and go back to the start of book 1 after every defeat' folly. Partly because it was a rubbish ending – an optional detour serving no purpose but to provide the opportunity to get knocked into a ravine and die – but also because it happened so close to the start of the next term that I wasn't going to have time to get through the series before I had to travel back to Swansea. And as I was using public transport for the journey, and would be carrying all my luggage on my own, adding a dozen books (or even just eleven books and my rapid guide to the first one) to my case or rucksack did not appeal. So a whole term had to go by before I could get back to my attempt at the whole saga.

That's enough reminiscing for now. Time to get on with the adventure, which means deciding which new Discipline to add to the line-up, and picking extra equipment from whatever is offered. As I indicated the last time I was making such a decision, I'm picking my Disciplines with Lore-Circles in mind, and if I want to complete the Lore-Circle that provides the highest Combat Skill bonus before I reach the first 'Die, long-standing reader, die!' fight, I need to get either Psi-Surge or Nexus now, and the other of those two next. I remember some circumstances in which Nexus is important, but they're in the next book in the series, so this time I'll go for Psi-Surge.

I also get to select a new weapon proficiency. As I'm unlikely to wind up in a situation where I can use neither my bow nor the Sommerswerd (that was last book), it probably doesn't matter, so I'll choose Axe, in memory of Lone Wolf's first weapon. As for equipment selection, I'll get a new rope, a healing potion, a couple of extra Fireseeds, and a replacement quiver of arrows. I'll also retrieve a helping of the Combat Skill-enhancing Alether berries I put into storage at the Kai monastery. Not entirely sure how I manage to nip there and back when it's hundreds of miles away, but the rules say I can store excess gold there, and thanks to the money pouch provided at the equipment selection stage, I'm 16 coins above my limit. Besides, this book also introduces restrictions on the number of Special Items I can carry, and says anything above the limit must be stashed at the monastery. If I'm going all that way just to drop off some spare cash and assorted clutter, I can retrieve a bit of Alether, too, right?

Some significant things have happened between books. The Elder Magi taught me about a prophecy concerning the 'sons of the sun', two men born centuries apart, but both destined to seek the help of the Elder Magi in the course of a quest, and to oppose the forces of darkness at a time of great peril. The first, identified in the prophecy with a name meaning 'eagle', was Sun Eagle, the first Kai Grand Master. The name given to the second in the prophecy translates as 'wolf'. Wonder who that could be...

The location of the third Lorestone I seek has been discovered: the Temple of Ohrido, the Elder Magi's most sacred place of worship. Which is rather less accessible than the description might suggest: after a plague wiped out a load of the Elder Magi, they abandoned the Danarg, the region in which the temple was situated, and since then it's become a swamp-jungle inhabited by a variety of unpleasant creatures.

Oh, and the Darklord civil war that started after I killed their ruler back in book 5 has finally ended. Their new ruler, Gnaag, has united the other survivors of the conflict under his banner, and they are likely to start causing bother for the civilised world quite soon, so the sooner I complete my quest, the better.

On my journey to the Danarg, I am to be accompanied by Paido, the hero of the mini-adventure in the Mongoose edition of Jungle. He's the Vakeros (warrior-mage) who travelled with me in section 1 of the previous book. For a brief time we also have an even more illustrious escort, but news of an invasion by Zegron, Warlord of Xanar, forces him to return to his cousin, the Queen of this region, to help prepare for war. He provides us with a Pass that will guarantee the cooperation of any loyal subject of the realm, and 21st-century Joe Dever gives a vote of no confidence in his readers by adding a warning against throwing away the Pass. Okay, it's a Special Item, so I need to ditch something to make room for it, but is there really much risk of a player going, 'Well, the Pass would help keep me out of needless fights with soldiers, but then there's this key that I picked up several books ago that might somehow come in handy in the middle of the jungle, so I think I'd better just go with the collateral damage,'?

Paido and I must now decide whether to complete the next stage of our journey, oddly referred to in the book as 'the first leg', as if the days of travel that help pad section 1 out to 4-odd pages in length don't count. We can go by road or by barge, and I've generally picked the barge when playing this before, so I'll stick with what I know well. Our departing escort has paid our fares for us and arranged to have a private cabin made available. A pretty poor-quality cabin, as it turns out (and the revised text takes care to point out that the patches of mould on the walls are 'unsightly', lest any reader think them picturesque), but mixed in with the junk stored in it is a nutritious liqueur, which I add to my pack.

Paido and I go up on deck to get away from the unpleasant smell of the cabin. After a while, a storm threatens, and the Captain urges us to go back below. Reluctant to return to the cabin, Paido suggests we check out the barge's tap-room, and offers to buy me a pint, and I am directed to the same section to which I'd have turned if I'd chosen to head straight for the tap-room rather than checking out the cabin. I wonder if any reader who headed straight for the bar gets to find out what a dump the cabin is.

The tap-room is busy, and offers a choice of three ales. Paido chooses Ferina Nog, which I remember from my first attempt at the book as ranking slightly below the cheaper export lagers in terms of drinkability. I could go for Chai-cheer, which is more palatable, but my character developed a taste for Bor Brew a few books ago, so that's my choice. Upon hearing me place my order, many of the patrons express doubts about my sanity, and even the barman backs off quickly after setting the tankard in front of me. The Mongoose edit here is one of the better ones, doing away with the implication that I down the drink in one. Sensible, though that will make it that bit more embarrassing if I fail the sobriety roll.

I don't fail, and the others in the bar are impressed when I demonstrate the ability to hold my drink. There's a particularly clunky Mongoose edit here, spelling out the nature of my achievement in needless detail. Now that I've drunk without passing out, Paido tries his beer - and promptly spits it out as he finds out how bad it tastes. The man into whose helmet he spat it is unimpressed, and tips the spat-out Ferina Nog onto Paido's shoes. Paido goes for his sword. I'm tempted to sit back and see how Mr. Dever contrives a way to defuse the situation if I don't intervene to calm things down, but I step in anyway, just in case inaction leads to one of the series' more ridiculous Instant Deaths (though even getting randomly killed in a bar fight wouldn't be anywhere near the worst ending that the Lone Wolf books have to offer).

I point out to Paido that the man whose helmet he defiled wears the uniform of the troops garrisoned at our next port of call and, Pass or no Pass, starting a fight with one of their number is not going to do us any favours. He sees reason, apologises, and offers to buy the soldier a drink. This offer is accepted - provided the drink in question isn't Ferina Nog.

Over a round of Chai-cheer (oddly renamed Chai-caveat in the first edition) we become friends. The soldier, named Trost, is returning to the garrison after visiting his family. Silence falls as a fancily-dressed man steps into the centre of the tap-room, introducing himself as Count Conundrum. He intends to baffle everyone with puzzles, and is offering money to anyone who can solve the first one. 27 years ago this was the only one of his puzzles that I wasn't able to figure out. By now, I've worked out how to solve that one as well. Should have put more coins into storage at the monastery, as I have to take 15 Gold Crowns out of my pouch to make room for the 60 Lune (local currency, equivalent in value and size to 15 Crowns) I win from the increasingly disgruntled Count.

As has happened before, modern-day Joe Dever has unnecessarily edited each 'right answer' section to specify that it is the correct answer to the puzzle from section such-and-such. Each such section has my character showing off the reasoning that produced the correct answer anyway, so even in the unlikely event of a reader getting a wrong answer that happens to be the right answer to a different puzzle, the error would soon become apparent.

The barge makes a stop, and I go up on deck to watch the departing passengers. A man with a hat, dark clothes, a sword and a leather-bound book comes aboard. He attempts to probe my mind, but I'm experienced enough that my Psi-screen protects me. Going back below, I spot the sinister stranger in the tap-room. Trost recognises him as a wanted man, Kezoor the Necromancer, and offers a share of the reward money if I'll help capture him. Even with a three-way split, drastically rounding my share down, I'd still need over a dozen extra money pouches to carry the loot, but I'll help anyway because I don't like it when people try to snoop on my thoughts. Besides, I don't think there's any way of evading this fight.

I'm chosen to guard the way out while Paido and Trost apprehend the Necromancer. Guess how well this plan works. Hint: within seconds, Trost is covered in boils and writhing on the floor. Onlookers cheer as a sword fight breaks out between Paido and Kezoor, but they're less keen to be watching when the Necromancer summons a horde of big spiders. They converge on Paido, and if I were unwilling to fire my bow at this juncture, I'd now be turning to 291. I do fire, though, and despite having to wait for screaming passengers to stop interfering with my line of sight, my shot is on target. Not lethal, but Kezoor's not going to get much use out of that arm for a while.

The Necromancer summons more of those spiders, but Paido uses his battle magic to incinerate them, and the two of us converge on Kezoor. He's a competent swordsman, but no match for the two of us, and we barely take any damage in the fight. Paido decapitates the corpse to ensure that it won't rise up to avenge Kezoor's slaying, and we then turn our attention to Trost. Who is by now a charred corpse, covered in burned spiders. By this stage any Magnakai-era veterans of the rpg.net Lone Wolf playthrough must be kicking themselves - that's up to three new alcoholic beverages, three puzzles and one doomed companion that they missed by opting to walk rather than take the barge.

The barge Captain demands compensation for the damage done during the fight, so Paido tells him to take the cost of the repairs out of the reward money and give the rest to Trost's family. Once he knows who we were fighting, the Captain is less concerned about fixing the place up anyway, reasoning that charging people to see where the infamous Necromancer met his end is likely to be more profitable.

I turn my attention to the book Kezoor was reading. Divination tells me that it's not magically protected, but also warns that it contains details of vile acts and rituals. I don't think reading about such things will provide any assistance as regards preventing them, so I don't look inside.

The bodies are disposed of - Trosts's with honours, Kezoor's just weighted with bricks and dumped overboard - and the barge continues to its next stop, where a couple of farmers disembark, doubtless eager to gossip about the events that occurred on the journey. Nothing significant occurs on the last leg of the barge trip, and that Pass ensures our entry to the town of Tharro. There's no 'If you do not have the Pass' option in either version of the book, eighties Joe Dever having relied on his readers' common sense, while his older self has evidently assumed that nobody would disregard his warning (or deliberately defy him in protest at being treated like an idiot).

Three streets lead from the square beyond the town gate. I pick Globe Walk, which leads to a square in which a sign points down an alley. There's no mention of anything written on the sign, which makes me that bit more curious, so I head down the alley. It's lined with shops, most of them closed, but a mapmaker's is still open, so I go in. The proprietress greets me and shows off some of her handiwork. I ask about maps of the Danarg, and she starts to cry. She and her father were on an expedition into that very jungle when he was killed by a creature that lived there, and one of her hands was scarred in the fight. Her notes and equipment were lost, but she does recall seeing the Temple I seek from the top of a 'Scarlet Tor' situated on firm ground around thirty miles from the end of the track leading to the jungle.

Returning to Globe Walk, I continue north, presumably still accompanied by Paido, though he hasn't been mentioned for a while, and reach a quadrangle. An imposing building bears a flaming sword-shaped sign that reads 'Temple of the Sword', and beyond it a track leads to a watchtower. The Mongoose edit has fixed some bad grammar here, and also sorted the different options into a more sensible order. I don't have a map of Tharro (wherever you have to go to get one, it's obviously not the local mapmaker's) or Pathsmanship, so I miss out on some hints about the region, but that flaming sword reminds me of my own magical weapon, so I decide to check out the Temple.

An old man greets us and leads us to a refectory. A monk brings us bowls of stew, and at this point I must act on metaknowledge because Divination is slacking again. Between my memories of past attempts at the book and the fact that referring to The Magnamund Companion reveals the 'blessing' the monk said over the stew to be Giak for, 'Die in pain,' I think I'll abstain from eating.

The books are inconsistent regarding Lone Wolf's knowledge of the Giak tongue: I couldn't understand what was yelled by one of the Giaks attacking Banedon back in the first book, and obviously I'm not expected to have understood the 'blessing', or the text would have said something, but in book 2 I was able to understand the scroll carried by my would-be assassin, which was written in Giak. Obviously it's possible to know a written language without being able to understand the spoken version - otherwise deaf people couldn't learn to read - but given the potential advantages of being able to make sense of what enemy troops are saying, it's odd that I've apparently not bothered trying to learn spoken Giak.

While I've been waffling on about this minor annoyance, Paido has eaten his stew. There's no way of preventing him from doing so, as far as I can tell. The monks are perturbed at my refusal to eat, and fetch a black-robed monk who carries a black iron staff. He asks if Paido has eaten, and the monks state that he did and I didn't. A little belatedly, Divination kicks in and lets me know that I'm in the presence of great evil. I draw my bow, not because I'm expecting to achieve much with an arrow, but because doing so may allow me to finish healing the 'didn't eat' damage before the inevitable fight breaks out.

The black-robed monk orders the two others present to 'summon the brothers'. I manage to shoot one of them, but the other gets out of the refectory and slams the door behind him. I've finished healing by now, so I draw the Sommerswerd and attack. The monk parries my blow with his staff, and Paido cries out and collapses. While I'm distracted, the monk launches a psychic attack, but Psi-screen blocks it. He then drops his disguise, transforming into the hideous shape of a Helghast. And a remarkably powerful one, too: its Combat Skill is significantly higher than that of the Darklord I had to fight at the end of book 5. At least it's vulnerable to Psi-surge, and while using that Discipline costs me Endurance, the expense is justified by the extra damage I'll inflict (and the slightly reduced damage I'll take) as a result of using it. I'll further improve my odds by taking that Alether, as I'm pretty sure this is the toughest fight in the book.

Too tough for me on this occasion: a series of poor rolls meant that I wound up dying, and the Helghast narrowly survived. Still, it was just a string of low numbers that doomed me there, so I shouldn't have to redesign my character to have a chance of winning on a subsequent attempt (good thing too, as I'd have to replay at least the preceding book as well for any changes in Discipline selection to make enough of a difference).

Incidentally, as I've so often been critical of edits made for the Mongoose Books reissues, I think it only fair to point out that the section covering this fight contained a serious error in the first edition (referring to Combat Skill rather than Endurance when describing the effect of the Helghast's psychic attack if Lone Wolf lacks Psi-screen), which has been put right in the newer version.

Out of curiosity, I worked out what the outcome of the fatal fight would have been if I hadn't bothered with Psi-surge. I wouldn't have died so quickly, and based on what I rolled for the additional rounds, the Helghast would have died at the same time I did, but I still wouldn't have survived. Still, that dies make me wonder if it really is worth using Psi-surge after all in this instance. Food for thought when I replay the book.