Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Someone Always Gets to Them First

Of the original run of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, Keith Martin's Night Dragon was the one I played last. It wasn't the last one I acquired - as previously explained, that was Siege of Sardath - but I'd already had a couple of goes at a library copy of Siege a while before I properly restarted my FF collection. As with most of the last additions to that collection, I got ND on eBay.

I had previously encountered a copy at Brown's bookshop, on the sale table (which was a little further south than it had been when I'd come across similarly reduced copies of Black Vein Prophecy or Moonrunner there), and had had a very brief look inside, coming across an Instant Death involving a drugged biscuit. I was not impressed, and left the book for someone else to buy.

ND also has the distinction of being the most recent FF gamebook I've definitely won. While my first attempt ended badly in a fight against assassins, and I've failed the book more than once since then, the time I played it at the unofficial FF forum, I succeeded. It's not as essential to visit locations in just the right order as in most of Mr. Martin's later books.

Another factor that makes this book less harsh than those that surround it is a small addition to the rules that makes character creation a little less hazardous. In recognition of the fact that my character is a seasoned adventurer, I get a couple of points to add to the stats of my choice (with certain restrictions), to at least slightly compensate for any poor rolls. For this reason, I'm going to take the dice as they come, getting:
Skill 9
Stamina 20
Luck 8
Mediocre, but it'd be even worse without that rule.

Hints of an epic quest have brought me to the Hemlock tavern in Port Blacksand to meet with a stranger. He turns out to be a Dark Elf, but this isn't a trap. Things are bad enough that he's prepared to put aside traditional enmities for his people's sake. As are the land's different Dragon communities: the Dark Elf attended a Conclave of Dragons, at which were representatives of every colour of Dragon, and some of the different types really do not get on with certain of the others.

It seems that the Night Dragon, an Ancient Dragon far more powerful than any of the contemporary breed, has been sleeping for centuries, but is starting to wake, and growing in strength as it does. There is little that the other Dragons can do about it, as they are bound by an oath that would inflict a lethal curse upon any of their number who dared oppose an Ancient. Already reptilian servitors of the Night Dragon, known as Stalkers, are guarding the Night Dragon's resting place and beginning to roam further afield. They defeated the Dark Elves who sought to eliminate the Night Dragon, and are responsible for the injuries that will probably soon kill the one telling me this.

There is one loophole to the Dragons' oath: they can talk. And they know the whereabouts of several powerful magical items that might give me a chance to defeat the Night Dragon in battle. The Conclave will see me and tell me what they can, and the Dark Elf gives me the key to a room where I can meet a messenger who will take me to them. He also gives me money for the voyage to the tavern where I'll meet the messenger, in a place called Rentarn, and then limps away, leaving me to dwell on the trials ahead.

In the morning I opt to do some shopping before leaving town. Unlike some gamebooks, this one specifies that I need to save a certain amount for anticipated expenses, so I limit my purchases to a rope, a mirror, an ice pick and a Luck potion. I almost went for the carved ivory polar bear, but despite looking like your classic 'seemingly non-essential, but actually invaluable in a certain situation' item, it's not something I've ever actually had any use for in previous attempts at the book, so I shan't bother with the expense for once.

Avoiding some kind of Unlucky incident (most likely having something stolen, given Blacksand's reputation), I proceed to the harbour. I have seen it argued that it's better to travel on foot than by boat at this stage of the adventure, but the misadventures of a fellow member of the 'played every FF book in order' club taught me of a potentially lethal Test your Luck early on the land route to Rentarn, and as I don't know how to avoid it (or if it's even possible) and my Luck isn't that impressive, I'd rather go by sea.

There's a ship heading my way. My spending in town has left me with too little money for the fare, but my Stamina is just high enough that I can get passage on the ship at an affordable price by agreeing to assist the crew with assorted tasks. Towards the end of the first day, the ship is attacked by a couple of Greels, aquatic monsters with which I'm not familiar.

Despite what some might think, they don't look like this.

One of the Greels targets me. Its Skill is equal to mine, but a string of lucky rolls enables me to kill it at very little Stamina cost. The other manages to kill a couple of the crew before succumbing to their shipmates' blows, and  I soon have cause to be thankful that 'skinning and butchering furred sea serpents' was not one of the duties for which I signed up.

The following day is foggy, and ice floes drift past as we head up the coast. I catch sight of something that doesn't look like ice on one of them, and as the ship is having to go slowly because of the weather conditions, the captain has no objections to my borrowing a rowing boat in order to take a closer look. The mysterious object turns out to be a black-robed corpse, frozen onto the floe. Closer examination of the body turns up a tattoo, which could be taken as implying that the dead man came here from a completely different gamebook series. I use my ice-pick to chip away at the ice on the body, and find that the man was carrying a pouch. It contains some money, a bit of frozen food, and a scroll bearing a partially illegible message. What I can read includes a mention of my name and a reference to a town with a name ending in '-rnex'.

The ship has pulled away while I've been investigating, but I am able to attract the attention of someone on board, and they allow me to catch up with them and resume my northward voyage, so for the rest of my trip to Rentarn I experience nothing more horrific than a dish of boiled Greel.

Rentarn turns out to be a cold and not-very-hospitable trading outpost. Stopping off to do a little shopping on my way to the tavern where my contact waits for me (while this book does track the passage of time, the reception awaiting me in the tavern will be the same no matter how long I take getting there), I get an empty bottle (there's a lot of demand for them in FF books from around this time) and some extra Provisions. Thinking of the meeting that awaits me in the tavern, I eat one portion of those Provisions before setting off to it. As I draw near, I think I see a grey-robed figure duck into the shadows, but don't worry about that as I enter the tavern, ascend the stairs and unlock the door to which the Dark Elf directed me.

In a shocking twist, the person I'm here to see has been murdered, and three armed fanatics in grey robes are waiting for a chance to kill me, too. I manage to manoeuvre into a spot where they can only attack one at a time, and consequently only lose just over half my Stamina fighting them. Searching the body of my contact, another Dark Elf, I find some money and a silver plaque with the word 'Endimion' scratched onto it.

Someone hammers on the door, demanding to know what's going on in the room. I search the bodies of my attackers, and though I'm supposed to be a seasoned adventure, the book has me go for their money first, so the people outside the room are able to force the door open before I can turn my attention to the paper that one of the Assassins carries in an inside pocket. The landlord and a couple of the local militia burst in, and I decide not to make myself look even more suspicious than I already do by trying to escape through the window. Consequently I spend the next couple of days in the local jail on a charge of Resisting Being Assassinated or something.

Once I'm released, the only real lead I have to follow is the word from that plaque. It looks like it could be a name, so I start discreetly asking if anyone knows somebody called Endimion. After two days of nothing but, "Did you mean Endymion?" and fourth wall-breaking references to Keats and Dan Simmons, I catch sight of a man in grey robes entering a tanner's workshop, and decide to see if I can find out anything useful from my enemies. Listening at the door, I hear enough to deduce that my next contact is due to arrive on a ship today, and the men in grey intend to prevent him from talking to me.

Aware that I have as much chance of averting his death as I did that of the Dark Elf in the tavern, I keep listening. The robed killers want to stop the messenger from the ship from going east to investigate the activities of the Frost Giants, and 'to deal with that idiot they recruited in Blacksand'. There are Stalkers in the wasteland and, predictably, an assassin at the docks. That seems to be all I can find out here, so I enter the tannery. The grey-robed man holds a dagger in one hand and a pouch of money in the other, and turns to attack me with his sword (don't ask). He's my equal, Skill-wise, and to complicate matters, the tanner starts throwing pots of acid at me. Amusingly, while the dice favour my opponent in the actual combat, they also give the tanner abysmal aim, as a result of which the Assassin gets hit by three vessels of vitriol, so the one blow I manage to inflict upon him is enough to finish him off.

The tanner flees, and I take the money before proceeding to the docks, where I find a sailor who knows about the Endimion, which is due in later today. When it arrives, I catch sight of a figure in a black cloak lurking on board, and the book has me fail to remember that my enemies favour grey robes, so I assume he's a villain, yell at him, and thereby draw the dock-based assassin's attention to the Dark Elf I'm supposed to be meeting, so my final lead gets a poisoned dart in the neck before he can tell me anything.

I hurry over to the dying Dark Elf, who is competent enough to make his last words matter. He tells me where to go next, says to take firewater to the Frost Giants, and leaves me with a new unfamiliar word to puzzle over: Ismater. Before following his directions, I head to the shops again to stock up on Provisions.

After a day's uneventful travel along a little-used pass, I reach a junction. One turning leads the way the Dark Elf said to go, but there's a weathered sign indicating that the other one goes to a place with a name that starts with 'Is-' and ends in '-er', so I investigate that first. Not entirely surprisingly, it leads to a village named Ismater. I risk spending a day doing manual labour to earn a bit more money, and then visit a tavern, which appears not to charge for the food and drink I get there. A grey-robed individual with a scar and a tattoo is watching me, so I stroll across to make conversation.

Night Dragon actually has three non-standard characteristics to track. Time and Honour are nothing new, but there's also Nemesis, which reflects the extent to which I have made myself noticeable to the fanatics who serve the Night Dragon. So far I've only acquired one Nemesis point, following the fracas in the tanner's workshop. No doubt some of the late Assassin's associates caught up with the fleeing tanner, who may have told them a less than entirely accurate account of the fight, downplaying his own substantial contribution to the outcome. Regardless, I am not yet notorious enough for the scarred man to be certain that I'm the person he seems to think I might be, so when I approach him, he makes his excuses and leaves. I attempt to follow and see where he goes, but he eludes me.

As I'm wandering around the village anyway, I decide to see if it contains anything of note. There are two potentially significant shops: the Firewater Emporium and a place with a weathered sign that appears to read 'EVIL'. Remembering the most recent dying Dark Elf's words, I first pop into the former establishment to buy a bottle of intoxicating spirits. Then I try the other place on the off-chance that the grey-robed mob have situated their local headquarters in the most unsubtle venue imaginable and can be eavesdropped upon. In this regard I am disappointed, as it turns out to be a junk shop owned by a man named Nevill, who needs to repaint the sign. Amidst the useless clutter (which, judging by the illustration, includes a Facehugger in a jar!) I find a few items that could be worth having, and I buy another Luck potion and a dose of Poison Antidote.

Nevill looks like the sort of person who keeps his ear to the ground, so I casually ask if he knows anything about the Conclave of Dragons. Alarmed at the possibility of being overheard, he pushes me out of the shop, at the same time whispering a warning that if I accept an offer of help from a Dragon, that Dragon will die.

Before leaving Ismater, I spend my remaining gold on more Provisions. Now it's time I was heading to the Conclave, and the book provides nonsensical directions for doing so: at the last junction Ismater was to the north-east, and the conclave was north-north-west, yet the text advises me to head east-north-eastwards to get from Ismater to the conclave. What's the betting that the author or editor of this book has a few birds of prey in his toolbox?

The path is uneven, and I stumble, twisting my ankle. After a while, a Green Dragon flies towards me and carries me to the cave where the Conclave is being held. Somehow this doesn't qualify as the sort of assistance that would doom a Dragon, though I know from a past attempt at the book that accepting a ride after I've spoken with the Conclave will cause the Dragon to die. Nastily.

Anyway, the Dragons of the Conclave tell me (purely as a matter of academic interest, I'm sure) that the humans who defeated the Night Dragon before used three magic items: a sword which is now located in the Mist Crypts to the south-west, armour crafted by the dwarven artisans of Slate Peak, to the north-west, and a shield which is currently owned by the Frost Giants to the south-east. The Night Dragon itself is somewhere to the north: the Dragons here don't know exactly where, but the Loremaster does, and I'll meet him if I find the three magic items needed. He also has an unlikely-looking servant whom I might encounter if I get lucky. And now that we've had this nice chat, if I should happen to start looking for the items in the hope of using them to kill the Night Dragon, that's entirely my own business, and the Dragons of the Conclave cannot in any way be held responsible for the consequences, right?

Those who expressed an opinion following my previous post were in favour of my breaking playthroughs into smaller instalments if that helped me get back to posting less infrequently, and the revelation of the three sub-quests lying ahead seems like a good point to take a break and post the story so far. I'll try to get my next post up before the end of next month.