A little while after parting with my original copies of Fighting Fantasy books 43 and 45, I found some more FF books I'd never played in the same charity shop. At least half a dozen, and most (if not all) of them from the 50s. If prices on eBay are anything to go by, that little stack could probably fund a week's holiday on another continent these days. But it was the mid-nineties when I found them, and I chose not to buy the lot because I had no intention of getting back into gamebooks full-time, and just felt like picking up a couple to provide a little short-term entertainment. Consequently, I read the blurbs and just bought the two that looked as if they might be a bit different from the norm.
The first of these was Spellbreaker, the FF debut of Jonathan Green, who would go on to become one of the most prolific writers for the series other than Livingstone and Jackson. What caught my eye was a little detail on the secondary blurb, on the first page of the book: somehow I was partially to blame for the villain's having acquired the McGuffin with which he intended to cause all manner of unpleasantness.
Funnily enough, I bought my present copy of Spellbreaker (original version) in the same charity shop where I'd found my first one, on probably the second most fruitful day of the not-quite-a-year I spent rebuilding my gamebook collection. But I'll have more to say about that day in a subsequent blog post.
As I recall, my first attempt ended in a blazing barn full of plague-infested rats. I played the book (and the other one I'd bought) a few more times, and gradually lost interest because of the difficulty level. In terms of ludicrous harshness, this book is right up there with Crypt of the Sorcerer (though I rate Spellbreaker more highly than Crypt owing to its atmosphere). When Wizard Books reissued it in 2007, some edits were made in an attempt to make the book less unfair, but the changes don't help much as they did nothing about one of the worst elements, and made a total hash of rectifying another. I shall go into more detail about these problems if my character survives long enough to encounter them.
My character is, as usual for FF, a warrior, but this one is taking a break from adventuring (fat chance) and has embarked on a pilgrimage to the shrine at Hallow's Well. On what Mr. Green refrains from openly describing as a dark and stormy night, I have got lost on the way to Rassin Abbey, and trying to avoid attracting the attention of the wolves in the area. I catch sight of a fire in a copse, tended by a pale and world-weary-looking young man who invites me to join him, and we exchange potted biographies. Not exactly The Canterbury Tales, but as gamebook info-dumping goes, it's not bad.
It turns out that he is also on a pilgrimage to the Abbey, but he isn't lost, and is merely sheltering from the storm. As he knows the way, we decide to set off at once, and catch sight of the abbey just before an unpleasant noise reveals that numerous Demons are bearing down on us. None too surprisingly, we speed up at this point, and in next to no time I'm hammering on the door, yelling to be let in. The door opens, and I stumble through. My new companion is too intent on the pursuing Demons to have seen the door open, so I yell at him to get inside sharpish.
And that's how I doom the world. The thing is, the other 'pilgrim' is actually a bad guy, and is so evil that he can't enter holy places uninvited. But apparently, despite my not being one of the residents of the Abbey, my urging him to hurry after me was sufficiently invitationy to allow him access. Not that my character is aware of that yet, as the loophole-exploiting villain doesn't take action until after I've gone to sleep. A convenient-ish bad dream wakes me in time to spot him sneaking out of the dormitory, and I follow him, but am not quick enough to prevent him from gaining access to a black book that's being kept in the Abbey. He mocks me and magically teleports away, and a Brimstone Demon starts to manifest in his place.
The first section of a Jonathan Green FF book almost always has the viewpoint character in a confrontation with something or someone hostile. This is the only one of them to launch straight into the fight in section 1, rather than giving the reader the option of making some kind of strategic blunder before battle commences. Time for some stats. I shall allocate dice, as the Demon I'm about to fight has an effective Skill of 9, and dying in the first combat never makes for that good a blog entry.
There's also Faith, but that always starts at 1.
I take one wound during the fight, but the healing provided afterwards is more than adequate to make up for it. Then I'm taken to see the Abbot, who reveals that the book which was stolen is the Black Grimoire, a virtually indestructible tome packed with evil magic, which was being stored in the Abbey to keep it out of the hands of characters like the man who stole it. He has belatedly been recognised as Nazek, a former foundling raised here, who became fascinated with 'the dark ways' and disappeared on a night like this one.
After explaining how I'm to blame for the theft (rather conveniently glossing over the lack of guards, locks and traps that could have supplemented the flimsy protection that existed), the Abbot also points out that one of the spells in the Grimoire could be used to release a particularly nasty entity from its prison. That prison is in Claybury monastery, a couple of days' travel to the west, which strikes me as being rather closer than seems entirely prudent. On the bright side, there's only one night on which that spell can be cast, but that night, Shekka's Moon, is less than a week away, so that silver lining comes with a very heavy cloud.
In the morning I prepare to set off on an attempt to avert the cataclysm I have played a small part in making possible, and am given the option of using the Abbey's library before I go. Consulting a book on astronomical events, I discover that Shekka's Moon only occurs once every 37 years (better make a note of that number), and that Shekka is an ancient goddess of witchcraft, whose powers are (unsurprisingly) strongest on that night.
I also get to visit the Abbey's herb garden before I leave. Owing to damage caused by the storm, I may only take one of the three potentially useful plants that grow there (well, it's not as if my mission is important enough to justify the expense of replacing two varieties, is it?). I'm pretty sure that despite the impending supernatural shenanigans, I'm not going to have to deal with any Vampires, so the garlic is something of a red herring. Glebe Balm's healing properties are more likely to come in handy, but probably not as much as the protection from disease provided by Aramance, so that's the one I take.
The Abbot blesses me before I depart, slightly increasing my Faith, and I am asked if I would accompany one of the other pilgrims to Hallow's Well, which is on the way to Claybury. I agree to do so, as it won't significantly delay me, I could do with the money that's being offered in return for my protection, oh, and I'll miss out on a bit of vital information if I don't.
Lady Attana, the pilgrim in question, is wealthy and has a lot of servants with her, and it takes a little while to get organised, but before too long we're on our way. After a while the road passes through a forest, and I signal for a halt when a suspicious rustling catches my attention. The brigand who was lining up a crossbow doesn't anticipate my stopping, and thus fails to hit me, but his companions still charge to the attack, and I have another fight on my hands.
It's even easier than the combat against the Demon, but the next Brigand to go for me wears an iron mask, wields a sword that appears magical, and is altogether a more formidable opponent (though slightly less so in the Wizard edit of the book). The masked brigand wounds me twice before he and his men ride away. Giving chase would be fruitless, so I stay with Lady Attana and her entourage. They're all right apart from a few minor injuries, but the brigands did get away with Lady Attana's jewellery box. It's enchanted, so they won't be able to open it, and Lady Attana gives me the key in case I should happen to encounter the brigands again and retrieve the box. As is often the case, the key has a number on it, but this one is slightly more justified than most, as the box was a wedding present, and the number on it is the year the wedding occurred.
No further trouble befalls us on the journey, and I opt to spend the night at the same hostelry they choose, the Pilgrim's Rest. On my way in I notice the inn's sign, which depicts a staff-bearing pilgrim on the road to Hallow's Well.
After receiving my payment, I join a group of well-off pilgrims by the fireplace. They're having a story-telling competition, and I've just missed the local equivalent of The Miller's Tale. There's a prize for the best story, and I'm going to need a lot of money if I'm to get everything I'll need in order to have a shot at completing this adventure, so I join in. There's one other storyteller before me, who tells of the Warrior-Priest Gwythain, who cut out the canker of Aryn's Hill. I'm not sure that my audience would appreciate the tale of the unwise Abbot who failed to increase security measures in the weeks leading up to the once-every-thirteen-and-a-half-thousand-plus-days event when the forces of evil would most like to get their hands/claws/tentacles/miscellaneous appendages on the artefact he was supposed to be protecting, thereby threatening to bring down disaster upon the region, so I tell of more conventional heroics (the in-text description of the story I tell is, alas, a poor match for any self-referential in-jokes), and sufficiently impress everyone else that I win 6 gold pieces.
Turning in for the night, I have a dream about meeting the pilgrim from the inn's sign, who offers me aid on my quest and gives me his staff. When I wake in the morning, there's a real-life version of the staff by my bed, and the pilgrim on the sign no longer holds a staff. This dream (which I only had a 50% chance of having) also gives me a small but potentially crucial Faith bonus.
Leaving the inn, I soon reach the Market Square, which is where the book's first serious flaw starts to manifest. For no good reason, I may only visit the healing well if I do so before looking around the market stalls (and there's not even any warning of this: you're just forced to leave town as soon as you've looked around the market). That might not sound like much, but there are additional factors that I will cover as they come into play.
The temple containing the well is surrounded by beggars in varying states of ill health. One of them calls out to me for alms, and I give him a gold piece. He blesses me, and I get another Faith bonus, but I'd have been cursed and suffered a Faith penalty if I hadn't tossed him a coin (in spite of the fact that it is possible to be robbed between the inn and the well, and thus not have any money to give).
Straight after the book rewards charity (or punishes the lack thereof), it provides another opportunity to give money to a worthy cause, but this second chance to give is a distraction that would cost me my slim chance of acquiring an essential item. Having learned this on a previous attempt, I ignore the martyr's shrine and head for the well. There, I have to pay 2 gold for a gourd (with no explanation of what happens to anyone who's been robbed), which I fill with water from the well. A Faith roll determines what happens next. Now, I have the highest Faith achievable at this stage of the adventure (including the point I only had a 50% chance of getting at the inn), and to succeed at this roll, I need to get less than 2 on one die.
I did it! Got a 1! The gourd is transformed into a Heal-All, which could be used to restore my Skill and Stamina to maximum at almost any time (but will actually be needed to prevent me from dying at a later stage of the adventure). That's only about the second time I've managed it in all my attempts at this book. And my chances of winning are still negligible...
Returning to the Market Square, I must now visit one of the taverns on the outskirts. Two catch my attention: the Brass Farthing and the Baited Bear. Not being a fan of cruelty to animals (or fighting mistreated animals after they escape), I choose the former. There's only one other person in there, a Dwarf who invites me to play a game called Eclipse. As I recall, the game is dull and irritating (and the book neglects to specify who starts, which could make a significant difference), but the mandatory wager on it provides me with my only chance of getting enough money to be able to afford everything I need from the market. Losing would ultimately be catastrophic regardless of exactly how much it costs me, so I bet the maximum possible stake - if I succeed, I'll have a chance of buying some non-vital but still helpful items as well as the essential ones.
I let the Dwarf go first because it's his game, and that does help determine the outcome. We roll a die to move around a circular board, collecting tokens when we land on them. I start by picking up a token with a negative value, and after a couple of circuits I'm 3 or 4 'points' behind my opponent, but then I land on the space that he's on, which means he has to give me one of his positive tokens. From then on my fortunes continue to improve, and in the end, my score is more than twice his.
Okay, time to go shopping. The first stall to catch my attention is selling relics. Even with my Eclipse winnings I can only really afford the cheapest item on sale, a scrap of linen purported to be from the shroud of Aline the Innocent. It's only 3 gold because the stall-owner believes it to be a fake, but it's actually the real thing, and adds to my Faith. If I'd been able to buy it before going to the well, I'd have had much less harsh odds of getting the Heal-All, and anyone who'd rolled too high at the Pilgrim's Rest would still be in with a chance.
There's at least one more useful item on the stall, but buying that would leave me short of funds for something that might be more important, so I move on to the next stall of interest, This is run by a falconer, and as I pay his high prices, I make a quip about needing a bird of pray on my holy quest.
The next stall is run by a couple of shifty-looking apothecaries. While I'm not interested in their snake oil or surgical services, some of the herbs they sell will prove essential at a later stage of the adventure, and another could save my life a little sooner.
That's everything worth getting at the market. There are two ways out of town, one leading west, the other south. Claybury is to the west, but the direct route is almost never the best one in gamebooks. Funnily enough, on my first attempt at this book, I chose the 'right' exit thanks to inattention: thinking the deadline for stopping the ritual made speed essential, I picked what looked like the quick route, but I hadn't spotted that the map at the start of the book has an unconventional orientation, with east at the top of the page, so I mistook west for south and accordingly chose the south gate.
As I head south, I catch sight of a figure in rags, lying in an alley. Investigating, I find the man to be afflicted with some nasty-looking illness. I give him food, and he tells me that he is from the town of Aryll, which is suffering from plague brought by rats which accompanied a mysterious stranger who came there five days ago. The man staggers off in the direction of the well, and I continue south.
Passing through another square, this one full of entertainers, I stop to watch a puppet show, taking note of the fact that the hero of the tale performed uses a golden sickle to cut the mistletoe that helps him resist the powers of the sorceress he opposes. I'm offered the opportunity to buy one of the puppets, but it's out of my price range and, as far as I can tell, of no great importance.
Just outside the entertainers' square I catch sight of a busker. He's playing pipes, and has a rat on one shoulder. Somehow sensing that I have spoken with the plague victim I passed earlier, he starts playing a hypnotic tune, but resisting it is based on a Skill roll, which I cannot fail. Then his rat leaps at me, and I also succeed at the Luck roll to not get bitten. I stamp on the rat, and the piper attacks me. He's nowhere near my equal in fighting ability, though, and dies quickly.
As I help myself to his Charmed Pipes, some of the town militia charge at me. Despite the fact that I've probably saved the town from infection, and was definitely fighting in self-defence, they mean to arrest me, and this is where the bungled improvement in the Wizard Books edit that I mentioned earlier comes into play.
The thing is, it is actually necessary to get arrested to acquire another important item, but in the original text, the only way to get arrested is to take so long fighting the militiamen that reinforcements arrive, and anyone with a Skill high enough to have a chance in some of the fights later in the book will almost certainly kill the militia too quickly. The edit got around this problem by adding the option of surrendering rather than resisting arrest - but only in the context of the miscarriage of justice that can occur at the west gate (leaving Hallow's Well without getting into trouble with the law because some evil git attacks you is not easy). At a no longer extant FF forum of which Jonathan Green was a member, I asked him if the surrender option was supposed to be available at the south gate as well, but he never answered.
Still, working on the assumption that the added surrender option was a misplaced attempt at making the book more playable rather than flagrant trolling of the readers, I have taken the liberty of making it available here, too, so (back in character) I allow the militia to take me to a blockhouse and throw me into a cell. Also in the cell is an old man who introduces himself as Cynric, aka 'the Mad Beggar', and his uncommunicative companion Gerald, who turns out to be a skeleton manacled to the wall. Do I detect a slight homage?
Observing my reluctance to stay here, Cynric offers his assistance - provided I can solve his riddle. It's a simple one, and when I answer correctly, Cynric gets out the skeleton key hidden close to Gerald and unlocks the cell door to let me out. He's staying, as the prison provides him with food and shelter free of charge.
There's more than one cell down here, and the occupant of another one asks me to free her as well. She says her name is Tira, and explains that she was apprenticed to a witch, but had second thoughts and fled here to warn the authorities of a coven gathering in the west. They didn't believe her, except for the 'witch's apprentice' bit, for which they locked her up. I let her go, and she gives me a jar of powder that will prevent her former mistress from changing her shape, should I encounter her. The guards don't spot us escaping, and we part company once we're beyond the town's walls.
This, incidentally, is where the most successful Wizard Books edit occurs. The section number to which the reader is directed following Tira's rescue is woefully incorrect in the original version of the book, but has been put right in the reprint.
It's also where this particular blog post concludes. Yes, I'm afraid my Spellbreaker playthrough is going to be another split one (though I hope not to leave as long between instalments as I did with Night Dragon). I'm stopping here because it's already been more than a week since my last post, because of the thematically appropriate date, and in order to create a 'save point'. I'm almost certain to wind up failing this attempt at the book sooner or later, and it could easily take more than a dozen retries before I next succeed at everything I need to achieve in Hallow's Well, so if I restart my next go at the book from here, that would cut out a lot of unnecessary repetition and help avert a series of near-identical failures liable to become almost as tiresome for my readers as they would be for me.